Author pens family memoir revealing how his mother outfoxed the Nazis

Sister survivors: Author pens a moving family memoir revealing how his mother and aunts outfoxed the Nazis

  • Ilse, Ursel and Marianne Liedtke escaped deportation to concentration camps
  • Marianne’s son has penned a family memoir about their survival against the odds
  • German Jewish sisters converted to Catholicism after their father’s death 



by Simon May (Picador £9.99, 320 pp)

Ilse, Ursel and Marianne Liedtke were three beautiful sisters, known to their many admirers in 1930s Berlin as ‘The Three Graces’. Brought up in a household steeped in German culture, they were very talented: Ilse as a photographer, Ursel an actress and Marianne a musician.

They were also Jewish but, unlike hundreds of thousands of other German Jews, they escaped deportation to concentration camps. This gripping family memoir, written by Marianne’s son, tells how they erased their Jewish identity and survived against the odds.

A memoir reveals how Ilse, Ursel and Marianne Liedtke erased their Jewish identity and survived against the odds. Pictured: Marianne, Ursel and Ilse

Their father, Ernst, was a successful lawyer who loved his country fiercely. He had converted to Protestantism in 1910; being Jewish, he believed, made him less German. When Hitler began his rise to power, Ernst airily reassured his wife: ‘The Germans will wake up soon.’

One morning in 1933 his young clerk, previously so deferential to him, shoved Ernst out of the office, shouting abuse. He never went back and, within a few months, he died of a heart attack.

The year after Ernst’s death, the three sisters all converted to Catholicism. They were genuine in their faith — they remained ardent Catholics all their lives — but it was also a pragmatic move: the powerful Catholic Church had a duty, at least in theory, to protect its flock. And who can blame them, May asks, for grasping at any strategy to help them survive?

Ilse, the oldest, continued living in Berlin where she hid in plain sight: her fiancé was a prominent Nazi Party member and she was often to be found dancing in night clubs, surrounded by high-ranking Nazis. Perhaps it was her very confidence that meant no one ever checked up on her.

At the same time, she was part of a clandestine network that helped hide Jews. ‘She was brilliantly courageous,’ May writes. ‘Of the few Germans who were resisting at all, even fewer were doing anything for the Jews.’

Ursel, the middle sister, was forced to give up her job when she was unable to prove her pure Aryan antecedents.

HOW TO BE A REFUGEE by Simon May (Picador £9.99, 320 pp)

In desperation, she persuaded her widowed mother to sign documents stating that Ursel’s father wasn’t Ernst but a conveniently dead Greek man.

But in 1943, when the Gestapo got wind of her Jewish grandparents, she chopped off her hair, flattened her chest with a corset and, disguised as a boy, fled 200 miles across the border to Holland. She remained in hiding for the rest of the war.

The youngest of the trio, Marianne, left Germany for England in 1934 when she was just 20 to pursue her career as a musician. She married another German Jewish émigré and became a professor at the Royal College of Music.

Whereas the chapters set in Berlin are filled with tension, the section on May’s childhood in London is a delight. Although bemused by many British customs, his parents were fervent British patriots, refusing ever to hear a word of criticism of their adopted country.

When Marianne turned 60 and got her first state pension payment, she exclaimed in amazement: ‘You mean that they saved my life and now they want to pay me as well?’

Their home life was less 1970s London than a recreation of 1920s Berlin. Television was banned and almost everyone they socialised with came from ‘our world of émigrés’.

Sundays were spent eating huge, cholesterol-laden teas, followed by a music recital. ‘It is hard to convey how happy I was in this world filled with strict but deeply warm-hearted people,’ he writes. Yet paradoxically his mother did not want Simon to consider himself either British, or German, or Jewish. He was, he concluded, ‘a hereditary refugee’.

Gradually, he found his place by immersing himself in science and then philosophy (he is now visiting professor of Philosophy at King’s College London). Germany, he realised, was the place to which he felt most attuned, ‘where almost everything feels recognisable, even if I have never encountered it before’.

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