As far as the Rüdigers were concerned, they looked with concern at the future of the little girl in their charge in an increasingly military, racist and anti-Semitic Germany. Irena was also aware of the changes going on about her. Jews were forbidden by notice to sit on public benches, so-called “Aryan” Germans were forbidden to patronise Jewish businesses under threat of severe penalties, and there were always secret police on the lookout for offenders. Julius Streicher’s Der Stűrmer churned out the vilest and crudest of newspaper libels against the Jews. Thanks to unceasing insults and propaganda Hitler’s mania seemed to have communicated itself to the entire nation.
One day Irena came across two boys who were tormenting an old orthodox Jew by pulling his beard. She picked up some stones, threw them at the boys and bluffed them into moving on. It may have been at this time that she finally decided to quit Germany for good and go to Palestine. She always said that she smelt something dangerous and unhealthy in the air. She might have been fourteen or fifteen years old when she made this decision.
During the years following the end of the First World War, the interest in Palestine of European Jewry had been greatly stimulated. This revival of interest was due mainly to three factors. In the first place, the vast upheaval of peoples occasioned by the war had brought Western European Jews face to face with their eastern co-religionists who were in closer contact with the Holy Land. Secondly, European Jews began to have forebodings of new pogroms, especially in Germany as Hitler rose to power. The walls of the ghetto were down, but the new freedom did not necessarily spell security for the Jew. Finally, there was the Balfour Declaration, by which Great Britain gave her support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews. There had been small Jewish settlements in Palestine since biblical days, but it was at the end of the nineteenth century, during the lifetime of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, that serious if sometimes unsuccessful attempts were made by communities of Jews to return to Palestine and settle there. At the conclusion of the First World War, the Balfour Declaration coupled with the lifting of the Turkish yoke now gave a basis for the realisation of Herzl’s ideas.
In the Germany of the nineteen twenties, as anti-Jewish feeling increased, a movement known as the Jugend Aliyah came into existence through which Jewish children were to be trained for settlement in Palestine. “Jugend” was the German word for “Youth” and “Aliyah” was the Hebrew word for “migration”. Members of the “Youth Migration” movements were sent for varying periods to farm schools in their native countries. They lived in “kibbutzim” or settlements in conditions that tried to simulate those they would find in Palestine. Here they were taught the elements of Hebrew, a dead language which was being revived and which is today the living, universal language of the people of the State of Israel. These Jewish children were carefully watched during their stay at farm schools, for immigration certificates to Palestine granted by the British authorities were limited. Therefore only the best could qualify for them and the Hebrew title of “Halutzim”, or “Pioneers”. The emphasis was on manual work and all-Hebrew speech. By manual work the Jews would redeem themselves and the soil of Palestine. By the use of Hebrew and the renunciation of bastard Yiddish and Ladino they would be truly recreating the spirit of the biblical ancients.
It was to one of these schools that Irena now went, taking tearful leave of Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti, and of Oma and Opa Rüdiger, who had been almost like real parents to her. Her mother put no obstacle in her way and appears at times to have been almost indifferent as to where this new step might be leading her daughter. Despite this, her final acquiescence, which still seems to be shrouded in a certain mystery, was to save her daughter’s life.
In the autumn of 1938 Irena, 15 years old, obsessed by the idea of going to Palestine, and studying Hebrew earnestly, learnt that she was to board a train carrying Jewish children out of Germany. She had made her own arrangements to obtain a passport stamped “Palästinawanderer” after wrangling her mother’s consent. Although differences of opinion were opening between them, the mother did not want her young daughter to leave Germany. Irena had been in hospital with a lung infection and told her mother that she was signing a release form. The mother, her mind occupied as usual by business matters, signed without thinking. Irena also tried to persuade her brother Heini to emigrate with her, but he declined and thereby tragically and unwittingly signed his death warrant. The great Berlin railway station was crowded with parents saying tearful goodbyes to children carrying lunch baskets and spare clothes. But Irena’s mother was not there to see her off. It was a disappointment etched into Irena’s mind. Thus she quit the land of her birth.
She was only just in time.
Suddenly the embers of racial and religious prejudice and violence, fanned so assiduously by the Nazis, burst into flame. Anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out everywhere, and the exodus of Jewish children to Palestine was stopped. By lying propaganda, by offering the traditional Jewish scapegoat as the cause of all Germany’s misfortunes, and by appealing to the basest of human instincts Hitler was propelled to the pinnacle of his power. The long-suffering Jews took the first steps on a seemingly unending path of tears to European concentration camps. And the civilised nations who did not want to know about the butchery beginning in the Third Reich found themselves hurtling towards the most destructive war in the history of mankind.
At a later date gentle Uncle Heinrich and Auntie Netti were to find death in one of those concentration camps so aptly called by the Nazis “Vernichtungslager” – “Vernichtung” meaning quite literally “reduction to nothingness.
After Irena had left Germany the Nazis one night smashed their way into the house where her brother lived and sent him to a concentration camp. Heini, a sixteen years old boy, must have wondered why he was so ill treated, for he had broken no law and harmed nobody. His mother, awake at last to the danger, fled to England, where she frantically canvassed a number of her relatives who had settled there to raise enough money to ransom her son. But she was unsuccessful. And then, with a finality which put paid to all her efforts, Germany invaded Poland. Within twenty four hours England had declared war on Germany and all avenues of communication were cut.
Heini Schreiber disappeared from the face of the earth. He became one of the six million victims of the Holocaust and one of the forty million dead from all sides in World War Two.
Irena had escaped to Palestine on one of the last refugee trains to leave Germany. She travelled by way of Italy, where she took ship across the Mediterranean. The crew was Italian and there were many adult passengers aboard. But the youthful refugees formed a large proportion of the travellers.
Although they were little more than children the young emigrants were unnaturally subdued. Only a few weeks before, they had been looked after by parents and relatives. Now, very suddenly, they had to look after themselves and, perhaps, after each other. Without being able to put their feelings into words they knew that they would be without family for a very long time. They knew also that their parents and loved ones in Germany were in great peril. As if this was not enough they were going to a strange country of which they knew nothing. And all the time they were trying to cope with a new and difficult language. This was Hebrew, whose Semitic words, grammar and writing had nothing in common with their native German.
After ploughing through the blue and mostly calm Mediterranean the ship berthed at Haifa. Irena felt little joy and some trepidation when she first set eyes on the continental-style cafés along busy Kingsway, the picturesque but run-down Arab quarter, and the white, flat-roofed houses climbing up Mount Carmel. In any event, her stay in Haifa was brief. Almost immediately she was whisked away to the long-established kibbutz of Ashtoth Yakov, some miles out of the city. Here the only language spoken was Hebrew. Even though it was understood German was met with a stony stare, so the newcomers had no option but to learn the language. Older kibbutzniks were intermixed with them to teach them agriculture and accustom their ears to the new tongue.
The trickle of mail from Germany stopped with the advent of the war. The new arrivals felt like total orphans. This was what most of them were shortly to become.