Kristallnacht. November 9 to 10, 1938. Synagogues throughout Germany were smashed and torched by the Nazis. Professor Wachsner and his wife, living in Berlin, were urged to flee. They refused, declaring they were Jews, but they were also patriotic Germans.
One month later, their daughter Charlotte married a Jewish man who, that same night, as arranged, fled to Cuba. She got permission to follow him, but the ship, the St Louis, crammed with Jewish emigrants, was not allowed to dock in Havana, nor Miami, and was forced back to Europe.
The whole thing had been staged by the Nazis to ‘prove’ Jews were not welcome anywhere. Charlotte was interned in Westerbork transit camp.
One dark night, Dutch friends of her father smuggled her out and put her on a Cuban-bound cargo vessel. She met her husband, they moved to the USA and wandered around seeking work, but then he enlisted in the US Army to fight against the Nazis.
In Berlin, the screws tightened. As food became scarce, three young Christian girls, friends of Charlotte Wachsner, knowingly breaking the law, smuggled food to her parents. Friendship, the girls believed, crossed all boundaries.
In September 1942, Nazi soldiers arrived at the Wachsner house, arrested the elderly couple and transported them to Riga where, with thousands of other Jews, they were shot.
Meanwhile, Charlotte and her baby daughter, on their own, set up home in a garage in Los Angeles. One day, after the war, a knock came on their door. Charlotte opened it and saw a huge cardboard box. Unwrapping it, she found mementoes of her parents, photographs, letters and Jewish religious artefacts.
The items had been scavenged from the Wachsner home at huge risk by Charlotte’s three friends, and now they had sent them to her. The power of friendship to heal and redeem…
The above is culled from Four Girls from Berlin: Marianne Meyerhoff: Wiley 2007… a deeply moving book.
Bishop Christopher Herbert is the former vicar of The Bourne near Farnham, Canon of Guildford Cathedral and Bishop of St Albans.