Posted on 23rd Nov 2019
Read the remarkable story of former Helsby resident Noemi Hawkin who survived the Holocaust, but lost her mother and brother to the Nazi regime. Now 100 years of age, she and her daughter recently visited Breda Lawson at Frodsham Foot Clinic and discussed it with her. Noemi's story has been movingly captured by her daughter Francis and she is happy to share it here.
Thanks to our friend and client Breda, at Frodsham Foot Clinic, for raising this important story with us.
Since my mother Noemi reached the incredible age of 100 years old recently, I have had requests from a few people asking to know more details of her life. During the years I grew up, I always felt I knew too little of her early life in Germany – she would not be persuaded to talk much about it nor write it down. Much of what I know and have written here, comes from my memory of several hours of a videotaped interview with the Holocaust Foundation (Shoa) that my mother finally agreed to do in the late 1990s – as a way of preserving the past to honour those 6 million who perished. I should apologise if there is too much detail here for some – but I am writing it with a few different purposes in mind.
Frieda (aka Noemi – her non-official, non-Germanic/Jewish name, assumed from the date she arrived in Palestine) was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1919, the second child of three. (Her father had served in WW1 for the Kaiser’s army. Somewhere we have a photograph of my grandfather in uniform with his spiked helmet on). Noemi’s family was Jewish, but not Orthodox. They did not keep strict Kosher but celebrated the traditional Jewish festivals. They lived in an apartment overlooking the city zoo in a ‘mixed’ area (i.e. living alongside people of other faiths). While Noemi’s father was still alive (he died of an illness in the 1930s) they lived quite well, employing a maid to help with housework. What few goods and chattels she still has from that era is very good quality, saved by relatives who were able to leave Germany before the start of WW2 – for instance silver fish knives, and large damask tablecloths from my grandmother’s trousseau. Noemi’s parents used to go away on the own in the summer (e.g. to a Health Spa), sending the children separately – each to stay with one of their three aunts. Noemi has fond memories of her holidays ‘in the country’ with one of her aunts who lived in a relatively simple, farming community.
Noemi attended a good school until she was 14 when (her father having died by then – they were living on a much reduced income) there was not enough money for her to stay on to take a school leaver’s certificate and she was apprenticed instead to the dressmaking business. This was nor what she wanted – she was very unhappy to have to leave school and abandon her hopes for a university education – but it certainly provided her with a marketable skill – she ran her own dressmaking business from home while we were growing up – working to a high standard of finish – from smocked baby dresses, through suites for ladies and wedding dresses.
The writing was on the wall during the late 1930s. The Nazis increased their anti-Jewish edicts and restrictive laws and many Jews decided to pack up and leave the country-as did some of Noemi's aunts and cousins. At this time, Noemi was a member of a Zionist Youth Group whose purpose was to inspire and prepare young people to emigrate to build the Jewish homeland in Palestine.
However Noemi has often said that she does not remember being particularly disturbed by the ominous changes in their lives - attacks on the Jewish population and increasing limitations on places they could go, what they could do to earn a living, which transport they could use or even which shops they could buy from. She remembers her ‘teenage’ years with fond memories on the whole: swimming in the river, skating, cycling - she accepted life as it was and didn't think too much about it.
In the months before the outbreak of war it was clear the way the wind was blowing. Noemi's older brother had been arrested more than once to be sent to a ‘Labour Camp’ (and was apparently only released because he could prove his support for the German State since his father had served the Kaiser in WWl). He had to escape clandestinely because - as a man of military age – he was not permitted to leave. He went at first to Belgium to relatives - but had to move on when the war started - to France - where he was eventually captured and died from malnutrition and Typhoid in a concentration camp in Pau (Pyrenees). Noemi's sister was only 14 at this stage and was officially allowed to leave Germany - Noemi remembers taking her to the Swiss border by train on one occasion - so that her mother would not have to go through the trauma of the last farewell in public - but this attempt to leave fell through and they had to return home. (Her sister did however eventually manage to get away and to this day lives in Israel). Noemi's mother had no means of leaving and - very sadly indeed - it is not known what happened to her in detail. We only know she was means transported with the eventual destination being a concentration camp. At first, after Noemi left Germany, she was able to keep in very limited touch with her mother via Red Cross telegrams - but when they no longer arrived, a dreadful conclusion had to be drawn.
Noemi herself expected to leave via Sweden and had sent ahead a trunk full of personal possessions, family items and mementos. She never saw those again because this plan had to be abandoned. (In the end, when she left in November 1939, she had only a rucksack of personal items with her). She travelled as part of a youth group through Austria to take a boat down the Danube.
The group was held up, waiting in Yugoslavia for over a year, living on the boat at first and then in a refugee camp (Kladovo). Other than the worry for her family, my mother enjoyed this in the way a 20-year-old would enjoy the company of others like herself. They all needed a visa for permission to leave Yugoslavia and enter Palestine (legally). These were in very short supply. For Noemi, this came through in the nick of time - and it transpired that the day after she left the camp the Nazis marched into Yugoslavia. All those young people she knew there were eventually slaughtered - there is a book recording the story of this transport: (Kladovo by Alisa Dauer).
Noemi had intended to work on the land in Palestine when she arrived, but due to repeated bouts of malaria arising from working in the swamps they were clearing, she was advised she could not sustain that life and ended up supporting herself for a while living in Jerusalem by working again in the dressmaking business.
It the wasn't too long though - 1943 - before she decided to join the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) branch of the British Army in Egypt, working as a driver to deliver heavy trucks to where they were needed to and from the maintenance depot. It was in Egypt then that she met Bill (her husband to be) whilst on a train back from an expedition to view the Aswan Dam. My father has written his own account of his life and stressed how hard it was for my mother to decide to leave Palestine at the end of the war and commit to a life with him in another new country. To marry a man of a different religion was unusual in those days too and there was much soul searching over this and of also because she suffered feelings of guilt that she had benefitted from a visa to enter Palestine which had been granted in respect of her commitment to work there to build the country and that she would have to renege on that. (Not to mention that the sole surviving member of her close family, her sister, was by then living in Jerusalem and establishing her life there). In the end, ‘love’ won, and Noemi came to Britain in 1946 and married my father in October, on the day before her visitor's visa expired!
Our early family life was in the happy environment of the prefabs on Springfield Avenue, Helsby, where both my brother and myself were born at home - delivered by the sadly now departed Nurse Betty Stewart - who also lived on the same row of prefabs. Although she had been a stay at home 1950's housewife, once we children grew up a bit, Noemi tried out a range of different hobbies at night school - including making enamel jewellery and woodworking - she made a glass topped table and glassware cupboard - both still in existence. She finally settled on winemaking and pursued this for many years with the Mid-Cheshire Amateur Winemaking Circle for whom she became a wine judge, travelling many miles across the North West of England judging homemade wines at various shows.
[My father - Bill Hawkin - worked at Castle Park (Frodsham), eventually as a Building Inspector until those offices were closed down and thenceforward out of Vale Royal at Winsford for the remainder of his career. He took early retirement and continued to enjoy dinghy sailing but was quite well known locally, especially for his work on local history, reported often via slide presentations to various organisation. (He died suddenly in 1997)]
In the late 1980's the city of Frankfurt-am-Main began offering annual, fully paid-for reunion hospitality weeks to those former citizens who had been forced to leave and lost so much. As a result of one of these events, my mother was put in touch with a former ‘best’ school friend, living in USA since 1939 who had assumed that Noemi had died in the Holocaust. They were overjoyed to find each other alive and to be able meet up again. They both learned to email as time went by and communicated almost daily. Happily, they managed to enjoy several return visits and holidays together both with my father when he was still alive and also in later years. Through this contact, Noemi found great satisfaction in also meeting up with a few other surviving school friends as well for a good few years until her American friend sadly passed away and she herself got beyond travelling alone.
Noemi is now living with us in Bradford West Yorkshire.