I’m sitting in the Palmengarten in Frankfurt-am-Main. Usually I go to gardens to see the plants, but today I came here mainly today to sit and think.
This must have been where my grandparents went for walks when they were dating in the 1910s. It’s where they took their three little girls for promenades in the best of the Weimar years. It’s also where my grandfather met with the well-known Protestant theologian Rudolph Otto, who came specially to meet him during the Nazi years to tell him that Goebbels was a terrible liar, that faith and truth would survive, and to support him so that and his community could find courage. My grandfather brought him here so that they could talk in some green corner unobserved. ‘Was it here?’ I found myself wondering, ‘Or was it there that they held their whispered conversation?’
This morning a plaque was unveiled opposite the former site of the British Consulate in Frankfurt to honour Robert Smallbones, Arthur Dowden and all their staff who in 1938-9 worked ceaselessly to enable thousands of Jews flee Nazi Germany. After an eighteen hour day, Smallbones wrote, he felt guilty getting some sleep while there were Jews in camps whom he might be able to help.
It was Smallbones who persuaded the British Government to allow Jewish refugees into Britain on temporary visas and who wrung from the Gestapo the agreement that the promise of such a visa should be sufficient to obtain freedom from the concentration camps. I have a copy of the letter sent from the Consulate to my father’s uncle, a Frankfurt doctor, on the strength of which he was released from Sachsenhausen. The signature clearly reads R Smallbones.
Smallbones’s grandchildren and Arthur Dowden’s nephew and niece were at the ceremony. They want to create a book about those whose stories were woven together around that building at 62 Guillottstrasse. The plaque describes what happened here: crowds of deeply anxious Jewish people filled every inch of the waiting room and queued out into the street. Bewildered and frightened, scorned and reviled in the land which had been home, here they were treated like human beings once again. Here they were given back dignity and hope. They were offered kind words, tea and the promise of decisive intervention. Smallbones’s young daughter would greet them as they stood anxiously in the queue: ‘Tell me your story and I’ll tell Daddy; maybe he can help’. Arthur Dowden regularly drove round the streets, seeking out terrified people who dared not go back to their homes for fear of arrest and bringing them food.
Beneath the description is a quotation from my grandfather:
It was moving to meet the families of helpers and helped together, and a privilege to be allowed to address the gathering. It was no less moving when I came back later after everyone had gone and watched passers-by stop and read the sign. It’s large, almost a metre square, and so placed on the street corner that it cannot easily be missed. Afterwards I wandered through the streets to these gardens, gripped by a sudden and bleak inner emptiness.
I know I should have written about Shavuot, which begins next Tuesday night. After all, it’s Zeman Mattan Toratenu, the time of the giving of the Torah, when we bring God’s laws down to earth.
If we really and truly want to bring them to earth and make them real, we must strive to behave as these good, brave, kind, imaginative and indefatigable people did.