For decades, more than 100 boxes of mice-nibbled fruit, tea chests and old leather suitcases had remained intact on a 10-foot pile in the hangar at Frances Newell’s home in suburban Melbourne.
They were crammed with thousands of letters – some in German, some in English – that she had kept when her father left the Castlemaine family home in the 1990s.
The 73-year-old knew she was carrying a treasure trove of heirlooms, as the family had dragged the ‘mountains of letters’ through their many homes in the Victoria area over the years. But the magnitude of the task meant that she continually postponed sorting.
The retired scholar and teacher knew his late mother, Evelyn Parker, had been involved in progressive causes in her youth and had met her father, James Newell, when they were both conscientious objectors in WWII. global.
Parker had also told her children about the years she spent in Berlin in the 1930s teaching English to Jewish families, and in particular the bond she had forged with a German couple, Max and Malwine Schindler.
The Schindlers – unrelated to industrialist Oskar – had been presented to Frances and her siblings as a noble couple who challenged the Nazis before and during the war to save the vulnerable.
But when Parker passed away in 1988, the family found themselves with a void in their mother and the Schindlers’ legacy. When Frances traveled to Berlin in 2016 to fill in the missing pieces of family folklore, research of the Schindlers in museums and libraries revealed no significant records.
This void in Schindler’s story left Frances with “a very strong sense of obligation” to make sure he was not forgotten.
So in 2017, she and her siblings finally sat down and started sifting through the slice of letters.
What they discovered were startling details of Parker’s role in a long-forgotten underground network established by anti-Nazi militants who helped Jews and political dissidents flee Germany, as the lanes of evacuation closed quickly.
“An important part of the network”
Born in Lancashire in 1912, Parker met the Schindlers after becoming a correspondent for their son Rudolf, who was her age. She spent a sabbatical with the Schindlers in 1930, before Rudolf spent a year with his family in England.
Then, in early 1934, she received a letter from Max asking for urgent help in Berlin.
Max explained that he lost his job at the city council of Berlin’s Neukölln district because he was active in the Social Democratic Party (SPD in German), which was banned after the Nazis took power in 1933 .
He was now setting up an English language school and library, which was a disguise for a network of progressive and SPD-aligned activists, to help Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis for their policies to get out of Germany. .
“So, I left,” Parker said in 14 pages of handwritten notes, the only previous attempt to record his experiences. “Most of our students were potential refugees, most of them Jews, we taught them the required amount of English… and did all we could for them. “
Language school meant that the Schindlers could send their students to Britain, where they were welcomed by contacts made through the labor movement.
That year, while his daughter was in Berlin, Parker’s father placed an ad in this headline, then known as the Manchester Guardian, seeking “board and lodging with English families” for students. by Max. There was a wave of similar announcements as Jews rushed to leave Europe.
This allowed German Jews to bypass the exhaustive process of organizing migration to the UK or US through the Nazi authorities, who demanded proof, often impractical, of wealth or financial support. to their destination.
Parker’s contacts in England made her an important part of the network. Her presence in Germany meant the Schindlers could introduce her to people as a visitor, taking her to birthdays and social events for SPD members to come together.
“Here’s this young English lady, they might say, ‘we’re showing her the sights, come meet her,’” Frances said. “But there was an underlying story behind it – it was about resistance to the Nazis.”
Parker returned to Lancashire in 1935 and continued to correspond with the Schindlers about school while working to find families in England who could accept more refugees. It was the letters she received from them before and after the war, along with a few photographs, that ended up in the Melbourne hangar.
There are also letters from others, including a Jewish man, Paul Rosenfeld, who Parker had taught English and helped prepare for migration while working as an au pair for his family throughout. 1936, when she was again in Berlin.
Rosenfeld arrived in England in 1939 and met Parker during the war.
“It was a great joy to see you again unexpectedly after a long stay at the hotel and to discuss memories of days gone by well lived,” he wrote to her in January 1940. “In the meantime, a lot has changed. . “
However, correspondence with another Jewish woman did not continue after the war. Frances has since confirmed that she did not survive the Holocaust.
Frances says she has always been proud of her mother’s efforts and her father’s wartime activism, and drew inspiration from them for her own involvement in protests against the Vietnam war, for which she was imprisoned twice.
“We had to honor them”
At first, Frances’ sister Jan (also Newell) came to her house every Friday to sift through the letters. Progress slowed in 2019, but Covid’s long lockdowns in Melbourne in 2020 gave Frances time to focus on the process.
She estimates that she must have spent “well over 600 hours” going through them.
“In those pre-war years, they were incredibly optimistic. They are young people, they are full of joy and optimism. They really thought they were going to get there, that the world was not going to take the path they took. That’s the great tragedy of it, the contrast of the early years and the tone of the later years, ”says Frances.
Jan said, “Reading the letters you get such an idea of the Schindlers as individuals, as if you know them … It was very clear that Mum loved them.”
The Schindlers ran the network until the outbreak of war made emigration impossible, but when the Nazis began expelling and deporting Jews from Berlin in 1941, the couple used their apartment to hide families. at the Gestapo. Max was drafted into the army to work as an English translator for prisoners of war at Buchenwald concentration camp.
Rudolf was sentenced by a court to castration for the crime of being schizophrenic. Records show it was used as a guinea pig in experiments in concentration camps. Rudolf died in circumstances which remain unclear.
In a letter to Parker in September 1945, Max wrote: “We hid our Jewish friends until the very last moment at the risk of our lives.
The exact number of people the Schindlers saved is unknown, but seven people provided testimony about the couple, which led to Malwine being honored by the Berlin Senate in 1963 as an ‘unsung hero’ (Max was deceased a few years after the war).
Outside of this ceremony, public details of the Schindlers’ efforts were scarce.
Thus, at the end of 2019, after realizing the wealth of information at her disposal, Frances asked the city of Berlin to consider installing one of the 12 commemorative plaques chosen each year outside the city. Schindler house.
The request was supported by research conducted by Berlin’s Silent Heroes Memorial Center, and last month the plaque was unveiled outside the former Schindlers’ home at Pariser Strasse 54 in the Wilmersdorf district.
Frances plans to visit next year, and the city has promised an official ceremony to mark the occasion.
“The sense of obligation to tell this story has kept me going for the past six years,” she says. “I found their reading very difficult, it was hard work.”
“At least there is recognition now,” says Jan. “Mom would be delighted. I felt like there was a huge feeling that we had to honor them somehow. There was also the feeling that there was so much suffering.
“I didn’t feel like it had been buried, and it seemed important to do something.”