Holocaust survivors reunite with caregiver
She was born Martha. But in the years after World War II, at an ivy-covered manse in the English town of Lingfield, the children under her care called her "Manna." Perhaps the little ones found "Martha" too difficult to pronounce.
At Lingfield, she was Manna not just in name but also in deed, fulfilling the word's biblical meaning of rescue and sustenance.
Martha "Manna" Weindling Friedmann, a German Jew, was born in Cologne in 1915 and lost nearly her entire family in the Holocaust. She survived by fleeing to England shortly before the war.
Beginning in 1946, she was employed at Weir Courtney, the estate in Lingfield where about two dozen child survivors of the Holocaust were given a home. Most of the children, ranging in age from 3 to 16, were orphans. Some escaped deportation by hiding with Christian families. Others had survived Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and other concentration camps around Europe.
Manna and the other caretakers at Weir Courtney fed the children, clothed them and gave them back their childhoods. Today, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington holds an extensive collection of artifacts from the home.
"So much of what we deal with does not have a happy ending," said Rebecca Erbelding, the archivist who oversees the museum's material. "I work with people who had a happy childhood - until. Or who can tell me about their parents - until." Weir Courtney, she said, is "a story that starts out sad but is redeeming in the end."
Some years ago, through friends in Italy, I came to know two sisters who had lived at Weir Courtney. Andra and Tatiana Bucci were 4 and 6 years old, respectively, when they were deported to Auschwitz. They are believed to be among the youngest survivors who have memories of the camp.
In October, the sisters surprised me by travelling from Europe to my wedding in Ohio. My mother, who organized their trip, had promised the sisters that after the wedding, we would take them to the Holocaust Museum in Washington and then to see Manna.
Andra and Tatiana consider Manna a second mother and stayed in touch with her over the years. But they hadn't seen each other in more than a decade - not since Manna, long ago widowed and with no children of her own, left her longtime home in London and settled in a retirement community near Philadelphia, where a niece also lived.
Her niece, Helen Weindling Cohen, welcomed our visit. She said that Manna had lost much of her short-term memory but that her recollections of Weir Courtney remained largely intact. When Helen told her aunt that Andra and Tatiana were in America, Manna's face, Helen wrote in an email, "lit up like the sun."
AN ARREST IN THE NIGHT
Andra and Tatiana were asleep the night in March 1944 when Nazis came to arrest them and their family at their home in Fiume, Italy, a city now in Croatia and called Rijeka. By then, their father, Nino,who was Catholic, was a prisoner of war in Africa.
Upon their arrival at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their mother, Mira, who was Jewish, and sent to a barrack for the small number of children who were not gassed on the spot. The sisters say they believe that they were spared because they resembled twins and were therefore of potential use to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele for his infamous medical experiments.
Mira occasionally visited her daughters at the children's barrack. But a day came when she no longer returned, and the girls assumed that their mother was dead.
Some time after the liberation of the camp in January 1945, the sisters found themselves - they don't remember how or why - in Prague at a sort of orphanage for refugees. At some point, the children were gathered and asked who among them was Jewish. Andra and Tatiana raised their hands.
With that, in the early months of 1946, they were aboard a plane to England and on their way to Weir Courtney. They describe their life there as a "fairy tale."
A FAIRY TALE
To Rebecca Erbelding, the Holocaust Museum archivist, Weir Courtney seems almost like a fairy tale, too.
"I can't tell you how long I've stared at these photos," she said, referring to the images of children dancing, painting, playing with puppies, riding bikes, doing headstands and playing dress-up. "When you stare at them long enough, you know them."
Rebecca had spoken and corresponded with Weir Courtney survivors but had never met any of them. In late October, she accompanied Andra and Tatiana on a tour of the Holocaust Museum's permanent exhibit. The sisters had never been to the museum and appeared stunned by the cattle car, one of its most noted artifacts. A similar train car had carried them to Auschwitz.
Rebecca told them that there were two ways through the exhibit - one through the car and another around it. "That was done specifically so that survivors don't ever have to be in a cattle car again," she explained. The sisters took the way around.
After the tour of the museum, Rebecca led the sisters to the archival offices and showed them the Weir Courtney collection. They leafed through the pages of periodic reports from Alice Goldberger, the headmistress of Weir Courtney, recounting to donors the goings-on there. The sisters saw the piles of drawings by the house's young residents documenting joys of childhood. A puppet show. A double-decker bus. A tree for climbing.
Many of the children remained with their Lingfield "family" for years and knew no other home after the war before they made one for themselves. But for Andra and Tatiana, life turned out differently. Their mother, Mira, had not died at Auschwitz. She stopped visiting them at the children's barrack because she had been transferred to another concentration camp. After her liberation, she returned to Italy, where she was reunited with her husband. Together they set out looking for their girls and, with the assistance of refugee workers, found them across the English Channel.
"Dear Miss Alice Goldberger," the Buccis wrote in a translated letter dated August 24, 1946, and now housed at the Holocaust Museum:
"First of all I want to thank you for your kind letter and for the wonderful words you have used for my two sweet children. It is no use telling you how we suffered and are suffering far away from them. But we can call ourselves lucky that they have been protected by gentle people like you. . . . Oh! How we are waiting that moment that we can again hug them.
"I will promise you that when they come their first duty is to write to you and to their dear 'Manna.'
"I don't know the English language but I can assure you that when a friend of mine translated your letters I couldn't stop crying for all my joy."
The day came, in December 1946, when the girls left for home.
"There were many farewell parties and gifts," Alice wrote in one of her reports, "until they both left for London, both girls dressed in nice blue coats, with little embroidered caps and matching shoulder bags. Manna, the nurse who was specially looking after them and who was very attached to them, had made these things for them and Sophie, our cook had dressed two dolls with exactly the same outfit. Everybody turned round to see the lovely sisters who looked like twins again . . ."
Sitting in a quiet conference room at the museum, the sisters carefully studied it all. They had some things to show the archivist, too. They had brought Andra's "dolly," as she calls it, and Tatiana's cap and shoulder bag, embroidered by Manna.
'I ...STARTED CRYING'
Manna had gotten her job at Weir Courtney by responding to a newspaper ad. The owner of Weir Courtney, Sir Benjamin Drage, belonged to the West London Synagogue and had offered his estate to house orphan children.
"I arrived there with my violin and looked through the window and saw these 6-year-old children with shorn hair, who danced, and there I stood outside and started crying," Manna once told an interviewer.
In the beginning, the boys and girls seemed to have forgotten how to be young. When a bus arrived for an outing to London, two of the children recalled years later, they feared it had come to take them away. One boy, Alice wrote in a report, "was often found walking round and repeating: 'I am a lucky boy that I have not been shot as a baby.' " He was said to have placed toy soldiers outside his bedroom door for security.
In time, the children stopped living in fear. The staff celebrated birthdays with the ones who remembered when they were born and assigned new birthdays to those who had forgotten. Some mornings, Manna woke the children with a rendition of Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" on her violin.
"It was," Manna said, "the most wonderful work, because they were just filling you up with gratitude, and they were also therapeutic for me."
Several people who worked at Weir Courtney were associated with what is now called the Anna Freud Centre in London, an institute for child psychology founded by the daughter of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Manna stayed at Weir Courtney until 1949 and spent much of the rest of her career running the center's nursery as a close associate of the founder, according to the archivist. She called her time at Weir Courtney, with its idyllic gardens, music room and abundant space for playing, her "happiest years."
It seemed, she once wrote, as if "some fairy-like godmother" were behind it all.
THERE WERE TEARS
We arrived at Manna's nursing home the afternoon of October 26.
"You are real people!" she exclaimed, in a heavy German accent, beaming at the gray-haired women she had loved as children. There were tears.
Andra and Tatiana spent nearly seven hours with Manna that Saturday. Judith Sherman, a Weir Courtney survivor who donated the house's archives to the Holocaust Museum, came from New Jersey to see the sisters. They looked at old photos. Manna sang "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" with every Mozartean flourish. The next day, we had a second, five-hour visit.
Andra and Tatiana had brought the doll, the purse and the hat - the going-away gifts that they treasure today as much as they did when they left Weir Courtney 67 years ago. Manna stared at the hat and bag, as if reaching into the depths of her memory in search of their meaning.
"Oh, wait, yes! Oh, wait a minute. Yes!" she cried. "Yes!" She held and gazed at the doll that had travelled so far.
We talked about Mira and the "great, great joy" Manna remembered at Weir Courtney when the Buccis found their children. Andra and Tatiana regret that their mother never had a chance to meet her.
"We are lucky," Manna said.
"No, no," Andra replied. "We are very lucky."
"We are all lucky," Manna returned. "It's good to be alive."
"Today is a lovely day," said Andra. It was an expression that Manna had often said to herself when she awoke to the English morning.
'MANNA WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN'
"I have heard it said," Manna's niece, Helen, wrote to the sisters and to me later, "that people often die near or around an important life event." Helen would always wonder, she said, if the sisters' visit with Manna was one such event, "as she let go shortly after that."
When the sisters returned to their homes in Europe - Andra's in Italy and Tatiana's in Belgium - Helen wrote to us to say that Manna had taken ill with congestive heart failure and pneumonia. She died November 16, three weeks after we had visited. Manna was 98.
The next Saturday, I attended her memorial service with Rebecca, the Holocaust Museum archivist. Judith Sherman was there with her family and spoke about the love Manna showed the children not only during their stay at Weir Courtney but also later in their lives. She was "every bit the biblical manna and more," Judith said.
Rebecca, too, spoke and remarked that she was perhaps the only person in the room who had not met Manna. "To be honest," she said, "I couldn't have imagined that Manna was still alive. Perhaps that's one of the problems with being a historian - we assume that the people we read about live only on paper."
She held up one such piece of paper - a bright drawing of a smiling lady wearing a dress the colour of the rainbow. The drawing was from the museum's Weir Courtney collection, and it was labelled with a name: Manna.
"The children needed her," Rebecca said. "They clearly loved her, and she loved them in return. That's in the records, too. So while I can't offer any stories of my own, I can offer you this assurance: Manna will not be forgotten."
I spoke on behalf of the sisters.
"Manna has always been in my thoughts," Andra had written in Italian. "Now I will imagine her close by to my mother, and finally they'll be able to meet each other."