Herta Stiefel

Herta Stiefel

17 April 1920
Schlüchtern, Germany
19 November 2020
London, United Kingdom
Words by
Barry Stiefel Son

Where does one begin ? A hundred years is a long time to cover.

Herta was born in Schluchtern in Germany on 17 April 1920,  which also happens to be her mother’s birthday. Her father Abraham was a banker and her mother was Bella Bachrach. Both Abraham and Bella came from well to do families and rumour has it that their wedding was a very special event. Herta was the youngest of three children by a long shot, and had two brothers Ernst and Marcus.

Family life was disrupted by two events in the early 1930’s . The first was the banking crisis and the hyper-inflation that took hold in Germany, and the second was the rise of Hitler. The latter resulted in Mom having to leave school in 1934 at the age of fourteen . So Herta went to Domestic Science school and trained as a cook. Something that we, as the family benefitted from.

the socialist ideology was not suited to her beliefs

In 1937, Herta attended a Hachshara near Schluchtern, which was on a farm and was intended to prepare Jewish youth for Aliyah to Israel and the Kibbutz. She decided that the socialist ideology was not suited to her beliefs and withdrew from the programme.

By now Ernst was married and together with his wife Nora emigrated to South Africa. Marcus who was not such a good student but fantastic with his hands had become enamoured with socialism and communism. The German Authorities arrested him and sent him to Dachau where he underwent a ‘rehabilitation’ programme, whereafter he was released as ‘cured’. Marcus left Germany and went to live in Columbia where he married and had two children before being killed in an aircraft accident in the Andes in 1948.

Herta remained in Offenbach ( near Frankfurt) working and mixing with other Jews and probably met Norbert Stiefel. In early 1938 she needed a hernia operation so returned to Schluchtern. Shortly before Kristallnacht, a good friend tipped them off that Kristallnacht would happen and told them to move to a larger town, so off they went to join their relatives, the Bachrachs in Offenbach.

Abraham was shot in Dachau and days later my mother was called to Gestapo head-quarters to collect his belongings

On 16 November 1938 my grandfather Abraham was taken into custody with his brother and sent to Dachau. On 7 December 1938 Abraham was shot in Dachau and days later my mother was called to Gestapo head-quarters to collect his belongings. He was buried in Munich Jewish cemetery in his kittel. Soon afterwards the requisite exit permit arrived allowing Abraham and Bella to leave Germany. However, now that Abraham was dead the permit was cancelled and Bella lived in Offenbach until 1943 before moving via Theresienstadt to Treblinka.

In March 1939, Herta was able to leave Germany through the efforts of her cousin Judy Bachrach and so landed in London as an ‘enemy alien’ for the War years. She worked for numerous Jewish families and organisations as a domestic/cook in the Golders Green and  Cricklewood area. 1945 brought World War II to an end and she went to Windermere for 6 or 7 weeks to run the kitchen of the Windermere Children Scheme for displaced Jewish children from concentration camps etc. She tells the story about how impish and creative these children were in that they broke into the pantry by ‘picking the locks’ in order to get additional food. They also used to go into the town and just ‘borrow’ the locals’ bicycles and bring them back to the camp. The local police always knew where to find these ‘stolen’ bicycles.

To those of you who knew her well, it comes as no surprise that she declined

Prior to leaving Germany my mother was engaged to a gentleman ,who was allowed to leave Germany for the USA. They agreed that after the war, he would marry her. Things did not work out that way as after the war he wrote that he had met someone in America. However he had made a promise and told my mother that she should nevertheless come to America where he would marry her and then they would divorce allowing her to settle in the USA. To those of you who knew her well, it comes as no surprise that she declined.

The German ‘enemy aliens’ were a clique in London and they kept in contact with other people from the homeland via a newspaper publication in New York called the AUFBAU. Here all the gossip, hatches, matches and despatches was written up. That generation were also avid letter-writers and so late in the war, Herta and Norbert became penpals. Norbert was in Rhodesia guarding Italian Prisoners Of War captured in North Africa, and was stationed near Gatooma. It is an honour that amongst us today are Hermoine Sternberg and her son Robert Sternberg whose family lived in Gatooma and were life-long friends of my parents.

One thing led on to another and Norbert suggested that Herta should come out to Rhodesia. My mother wrote to Ernst and told him whereupon Ernst met up with Norbert’s brother Sigmund Stiefel who was also living in Johannesburg and they decided that provided my father promised to marry Herta she could accept the invitation. So on 18 July 1946 , Norbert and Herta got engaged and the next phase of the life journey commenced.

the passengers and crew took their belongings and the aircraft’s radio and helped by local people commenced a five day trek to the nearest town

After experiencing some challenges to get a Visa, Herta left London on 1 March 1947 by plane, a Dakota/DC3, for Salisbury (now Harare) arriving on 16 March 1947. This was an adventurous journey ,which should have taken 7 days. However the DC3 crash-landed in the swamps of the then Belgium Congo ( now Zaire). Fortunately no one was injured and the passengers and crew took their belongings and the aircraft’s radio and helped by local people commenced a five day trek to the nearest town. We are talking about the wilds. Every night they made camp, lit a bonfire to keep the wild animals away and as a beacon for the spotter planes to find them. These planes made drops of fruit, food, drinks, newspapers and so on. However after the first drop, Herta explained that she was Jewish and kept to a kosher diet so could not eat the tinned bully-beef. The next day, they dropped tinned gefilte fish from Sweden for Mom.

Once in Ndola ( Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia) they commenced their journey to Salisbury where Mom was united with her fiancé, Norbert and they got married a week later by Special Licence. A marriage of fifty seven years that ended on Norbert’s death on 18 September 2004. Mom and Dad spent thirty years in Salisbury where Herta became very involved in the Jewish Community, becoming Chairlady of the Women’s Guild whose main function was to cater for yom tovim and other Jewish events as well as societal benefit activities. Herta went around to schools and took the weekly Scripture classes which was part of the school curriculum.

a member of the community died and Herta got in the car and drove to sit with the body until after Yom Kippur

She was a member of the Chevra Kadisha and became an honorary life member. I recall that on occasions she returned from carrying out the tahara rather distressed when the deceased had been killed in a car accident. On one particular Yom Kippur, a member of the community died and Herta got in the car and drove to sit with the body until after Yom Kippur. That is the only occasion, during the first 95 years of her life, that I recall when Mom did not fully observe Shabbat or a Jewish holiday or a fast day.

Growing up in Salisbury was not without its challenges for my sister Barbara and myself. Herta brought us up in a kosher and strictly Orthodox manner. The Salisbury Jewish community was fairly evenly split between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities and each kept very much to themselves. The Ashkenazi children went to Habonim and the Sephardi children went to Betar. My parents were more revisionist so I went to Betar. Mixing across the communities was a non-event as each had their own Rabbi, Synagogue and so on. Barbara and I went to a local school with very few Jews as compared to most of the other Jewish children who seemed to attend a school with many more Jews. We were ‘outliers’ compared to other Jewish children in Salisbury who had a more relaxed Jewish upbringing. Overall we had a good life, feeling free and privileged to have been born at that time in Rhodesia.

I moved away from Salisbury to attend the University of Witwatersrand in 1967. At that time there was a Guerrilla war going on, and by going to University I obtained an exemption. My mother always wanted me to become an accountant, but I thought that Industrial Chemistry was my calling. After a few years my mother was proved right so I completed my Batchelor of Science degree and commenced Accountancy… LESSON … Mother is ALWAYS RIGHT ???

That was not the only memorable lesson my mother taught me…

Remember that whatever you do your mother will get to hear about it so always try and do the right thing

I attended Routledge Junior School which was a boarding school. One of the boarders was Kevin Kavonic whose parents had a farm, thus he was a boarder. Kevin used to visit us regularly and enjoyed our hospitality, particularly my mother’s Chelsea Buns and other delights. At some point, the Kavonics invited me to spend the weekend with them on the farm. This was a big event as I would be away over Shabbat. My mother allowed this so off I went. It was such fun on the farm but when it came to Sunday breakfast, there was bacon and eggs. I refused the offer and a discussion ensued whereby at the age of eight years old I explained that because of Kashrut, it was forbidden. They tried to encourage me to at least try some but to no avail. I thought nothing further about it until some weeks later my mother said over lunch  “what happened over breakfast when you went to the Kavonics ?”. I didn’t recall the incident with the bacon until she reminded me whereupon she said, “Remember that whatever you do your mother will get to hear about it so always try and do the right thing”. What a lesson that was.

A few years later Barbara moved to Johannesburg, where she lived, got married to Peter Joffe and they had one son Harold. UDI, the Unilateral Declaration of Independence under Ian Smith came, and then eventually majority rule under Robert Mugabe.

Thoughout the years in Salisbury the Stiefel brothers lived with their families. My uncle Herbert, Auntie Margot and Peter lived near us and the two families were very close. In 1977 both families decided to leave Rhodesia ( now called Zimbabwe), with Herbert and Margot returning to live in Konstans ( which is on the Swiss/German border) and my parents to Johannesburg where Barbara and I lived. They left on 18 April 1977 and whilst en route driving to Johannesburg, our son Anthony was born. In those days there were no mobile telephones so I called Beit Bridge ( which was the border post between Rhodesia and South Africa) and asked the immigration officials to pass on the message. Sure enough they got the message and called me, very excited.

My father continued to work and they settled down to their new life. Sharon and I had a further son, Gary, and they became involved in the Etz Chaim Synagogue. Life was somewhat better in that my father had his brother Sigmund, his wife Ilse and their daughter Gladys, and my mom had her brother Ernst, his wife Nora and their daughter Lillian.

By 1985 Sharon, Anthony, Gary and I emigrated to the UK and my parents became more involved in Barbara’s life. In April 1987 Sharon and I brought Samantha into the world. Unfortunately, Barbara got breast cancer and despite revolutionary drugs and treatment she eventually passed away in December 1996. This was a massive loss to my parents and with some encouragement from me, they emigrated to the UK in 1997, bought the flat in Belvedere Court which remains theirs to this day.

I am sure that I have left out many highlights and lowlights but I hope that the above history gives you all an overview of Herta’s long and varied life.

disciplined, structured , organised and religious

But I am not ending just yet, because I have not spent any time on the softer issues.

Herta was a most disciplined, structured , organised and religious Jewess. She saw her role as FIRSTLY, SECONDLY and THIRDLY as a Jewish homemaker. Nothing would come in the way of that. She was Germanic in her ways and never lost ( nor did she try ) to lose her German accent. She prayed daily and every night in German. A few years ago, her prayer book was falling apart due to overuse so her carer Michelle googled and found an old edition of her prayer book and bought it for her.

In Salisbury , lunch was every day at 1pm and so my Dad came home every day and Barbara and myself came back from school for lunch. My dad would then lie down for a twenty minute catnap before returning to the office by 2pm. All meals were held together and we were obliged to eat whatever was put in front of us. No questions No buts .

Herta was well known for her routines. Thursday morning was main shopping day and she had a ten o’clock appointment with the Kosher butcher, Henry Steel. No one dared to take her slot. Mom would be a big meat buyer as meat was very important for both Stiefel families . Meat was called “schtal gemuse” which literally translated means barn vegetables. From the butcher she would go to the weekly “caffee clutch” (coffee meeting) which was held at Herbert’s wholesale premises for their group of friends where Herbert provided coffee and cake.

we all loved her cooking

Barbara and I were always taken to a local department store HM Barbour the day before school opened for waffles and cream . And so life was really rather structured. She never forgot birthdays ,anniversaries etc because it was all recorded.

Mixed in with this was Herta’s dedication to prayer and Jewishness. It was this discipline which gave total structure to her being and enabled her to go through life as she did.

By now , my children are probably wondering how I could have carried on so long without mentioning her cooking. Yes, food is unbelievably important in the Stiefel family and we all loved her cooking . There are just too many dishes to describe, so I need to limit the memories to kartoffel (potato) charlotte, apfel auf de blat and apfel schtoupschen (apple fritters).

…do you think Hashem has forgotten about me?

I believe that during 2020, constantly hearing on the news about the Coronavirus affected her, frightened her and she become more accepting of the inevitability of her death. The Coronavirus did not allow us to hold a party for her hundredth birthday in April and deprived Anthony,  Cynthia, Maddy and Zoe from visiting London.

Shortly after the death of Rabbi Sacks, mom was walking along the path at Belvedere Court and bumped into Rabbi Cohen, one of the residents. They exchanged pleasantries and Herta commented that she was surprised how young Rabbi Sacks was. She then posed the following question to Rabbi Cohen…Rabbi Cohen…do you think Hashem has forgotten about me?

So in summation, Herta lived a full life  an independent life ( which meant she was not a burden to anyone ) and passed away peacefully and without fuss. She could not have planned it better. I last saw mom at 2am on Thursday 19 November as she was having difficulty in breathing and had called out the emergency services. As they took her to the ambulance her parting words were “Sorry that I brought you out so late. Go and have a good night’s sleep”. That sums it up.

Special thanks goes to Michelle who was Herta’s carer, for allowing her to retain her independence and dignity.

She leaves behind a son Barry and daughter-in-law Sharon; Anthony,  Cynthia, Madelaine and Zoe; Gary, Anna, Ethan and Amelie; Samantha, Dan, Aaron and Eliana; and many friends scattered all over the world.

Herta’s passing brings to an end a large chapter in our lives . We will all hold and hopefully cherish the many memories we each have and take some life lessons with us as we continue our own life journey .