This image explores the early life of my mother, Hannalore Isakowitz, who was born in 1915 in Tilsit, a small town on the Memel River in Eastern Prussia now within Russia. Her parents both came from large middle class, bourgeois, Jewish families who regarded themselves as entirely assimilated and proudly German.
In the early 1900’s Tilsit thrived. With 34,500 inhabitants; it had electric tramways, a direct railway line to Königsberg and steamers docked daily. The city was chiefly made up of Germans, who lived alongside Lithuanians and Jews. However the Prussian policy of deportation consistently required the Jewish citizens of Tilsit to make critical life decisions: either move on or fight for their existence in the city. Those, like my grandfather who were able, with bureaucratic exertion and professional influence, to stay there, came to completely identify themselves with the Imperial Empire and became active in both their community and as soldiers.
My grandfather Erich Max Isakowitz, had been born in Königsberg in 1891, and was a Doctor and Dental surgeon. His lengthy academic education and training at the Universities of Königsberg and Munich was interrupted by extensive military service as a doctor and dental surgeon on the Western Front during the Great War. He was not decorated but did receive recognition and compensation for his war service. Intelligent, creative and charming, but also a difficult character and inveterate womaniser, his marriage to my grandmother was only saved by convention and the level of adversity they both faced.
My grandmother Sofie Berlowitz was born in Eydtkuhnen in 1893, about 90 kms south east of Tilsit. Stylish, intelligent, strong willed and well educated, Sofie spoke English and had visited England, a factor that would eventually help the family leave Germany. The daughter of a prosperous businessman it is well documented that she brought a considerable dowry to the marriage. Eydtkuhnen was the easternmost terminus of the Prussian Eastern Railway connecting Berlin with the Saint Petersburg – Warsaw Railway in the Russian Empire. To continue their voyage, all passengers and goods had to change at Eydtkuhnen to a Russian gauge train. The lucrative Berlowitz family businesses included this moving of goods and passengers from one set of trains to another.
This stylish, headstrong couple were married in a Jewish ceremony in Eydtkuhnen on 26th April 1914 and my mother, their only child, was born on 15th July 1915. By the time of the photographs Eric was already in military service, one in dress, the other in field uniform. In 1924 after six or so difficult years based in Tilsit, Erich and Sofie, with their young daughter, always known as Lore, left for Dresden, where they had family. This was to advance Erich’s practice and to escape, in the wake of growing political change, increasing anti- Semitism.
Well established since medieval times, Dresden, ‘The Florence of the Elbe’ was at the time of the Isakowitz family’s arrival in 1924, one of the great European cities. A major economic centre and transport hub, it was world renowned for its architecture and the arts.
Dresden had developed dramatically in the 18th C under Elector Friedrich August I (Augustus the Strong) to become the city of Baroque, instantly recognisable by its iconic skyline. The royal court and nobility commissioned extensive building work and encouraged exceptional artistic achievement. Pöppelmann built the Zwinger and Taschenbergpalais in 1711, the Japanese Palais in 1715 and the summer palace in Pillnitz in 1721. The Frauenkirche was completed in 1734, the cathedral in 1755.The outstanding collections of the Picture Gallery and the Green Vault were established, and the first European porcelain manufactory, later to move to Meissen, was founded.
Dresden continued to grow rapidly in the mid-19th C. Additional bridges over the Elbe, new railway lines, stations and a port were built as well as a new city hall, and numerous other public buildings. In the 1840’s the celebrated architect Gottfried Semper designed the Opera House (which was to feature premieres by Wagner and Richard Strauss) and the Semper Synagogue. At the turn of the century Dresden was the fourth largest city of the German Empire with a population of more than half a million inhabitants.
In 1924 Dresden was a vibrant and sophisticated city enjoying a brief period of calm after turmoil caused by the privations enforced by the Treaty of Versailles and the hyperinflation of the Deutschmark.
The Jewish population of over 5000 focussed on the Semper Synagogue was a prosperous and well-endowed community; it owned a valuable library, ran a community newspaper and maintained numerous social and charitable organizations. The synagogue designed by Semper a non-Jew, reflected the aspirations of German Reform Judaism which emphasised assimilation, the need to modernise rituals and the introduction of music, the organ and a choir. Reform Jews stressed that Jews were not in a state of continual exile but were vital contributory members of their community and nation.
This print refers to aspects of the family’s urban life in Dresden. After various temporary addresses they rented a spacious first floor apartment at Werderstrasse 44, in the north eastern part of Dresden Plauen. The house and the street shown in the print no longer exist, destroyed by the bombing of February 13th 1945. Plauen was a recently developed suburb area south of the Altstadt (Old Town) and the Hauptbahnof, main railway station. Characterised by large detached villas with handsome facades and spacious gardens it was taken up by middle and professional classes. The house contained a number of apartments, was centrally heated, and their apartment had a bathroom, a conservatory, maids quarters and telephone. Werderstrasse 44 as can be seen from the maps, was on the corner of a square, at the centre of which stood the Lukas Kirche, an imposing, now reconstructed, late Victorian Lutheran church and important Dresden landmark.
From1926 Lore attended the Deutsche Oberschule in Plauen, now known as the Gymnasium Dresden Plauen. Built in 1896, it remains largely as it was at the time of her attendance. Lore kept a remarkable amount from her time at school including, school reports, photo albums of school events and trips and her Abitur certificate taken in spring 1933. A promising though by no means outstanding student, Lore initially wanted, like her father, to study medicine. When in 1933 she realised the impossibility of this aspiration as a Jew under National Socialism she turned to languages for which she had a natural facility. Her efforts in this direction can be seen in the context of her relationship with Professor Victor Klemperer. Lore also kept photo albums of her foreign travels with her parents, many of which were done by car.
The Semper synagogue seen in the top right hand area stood close to the Bruhl Terrace and the Carola Bridge, you can see its position on the map above and to the right of the image. The focus of Jewish life in Dresden the synagogue was, like over a thousand others in Germany and Austria, burnt down on the night known as Kristallnacht, the 9th and 10th November 1938. A remaining fragment of the wall and the Star of David from the roof are now incorporated into the new synagogue which is on the same site.
When Conrad Felixmuller, (self-portrait on the right) painted my grandmother Sofie (top left) and drew my mother in late 1932, the signs of what were to come were already evident. Dresden was a Nazi stronghold prior to Hitler taking power, and remained so for the duration of the Third Reich. In 1932 the local Nazi newspaper had the highest circulation of any paper in the city, even before the Saxon State Parliamentary elections of July 1932 gave the Nazi party a considerable majority. Unemployment in Saxony was the highest in Germany and the disaffected, unemployed, and bankrupt, as well as the cautious middle classes, observed the decline of the Social Democrats, and turned to the Nazis as a bulwark against the Communists.
Perhaps the most profound and detailed account we have of life in Germany, and in particular in Dresden, under National Socialism, are the diaries of Victor Klemperer. A Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Dresden, Klemperer was a Jew married to an Aryan. In his writing, Klemperer demonstrates the importance of his almost daily record. He aspired to “become a writer of contemporary cultural history.” The diaries covering 1933 to 1945 bring together the most detailed observation skills with linguistic mastership, and an educated and knowledgeable scepticism. These chronicles, with their mix of political acuity, domestic minutiae and unflinching self-reflection, have become a standard source for historians of National Socialism.
So as Lore, aged 17 was about to take her school leaving certificate, this was Klemperer’s’ diary entry:
10th March: Friday
30th January: Hitler Chancellor. What, up to election Sunday on 5th March I called terror was a mild prelude. Now the business of 1918 is being exactly repeated, only under a different sign, under the swastika. Again, it’s astounding how easily everything collapses.
The new Reich Governor Martin Mutschmann, appointed shortly after this was a brutal fanatic, nicknamed the Saxon Mussolini. The thuggery that broke out after his installation made some prescient citizens leave, whilst others, like Klemperer and no doubt the Isakowitz family, simply looked on in horror. The Nazis in Dresden took an early lead on book burning in March 1933, with a large bonfire opposite the Dresden Royal Conservatory of Music. At the same time, they removed the renowned conductor Fritz Busch from his post as Director at the Dresden State Opera, for supporting Jewish Musicians. The dismissal was humiliating: Nazis in the front rows shouted “Out with Busch” at the beginning a performance of Rigoletto, leading to his immediate replacement.
This image considers the relationship between the Isakowitz family and the acclaimed diarist Victor Klemperer. The lace tablecloth, Rosenthal porcelain and family silver with Erich and Sofie’ s intertwined initials, are items which were brought by the family from Dresden to London. The story is told most eloquently by Klemperer himself: The following quotes about the Isakowitz Family are all from:
Victor Klemperer ‘I shall bear witness 1933 – 41’
Page 27 10th August 1933
Stepun sent me a Fraulein Isakowitz for vocational guidance. She took her school leaving certificate at Easter, father a Jewish dentist. She would like to become an interpreter. How? The institute in Mannheim has been moved to Heidelberg, Gutkin removed – who knows where- non Aryans are not admitted. She wants to try and study here for one or two semesters. Questionable if she’ll be allowed to.
Page 38 9th November Thursday 1933
At the first lecture Monday, French Renaissance, five people, for the exercises, Renaissance lyric poetry, four, today at Corneille, two. These two Lore Isakowitz, yellow Jewish card- she really wants to be an interpreter, I have already been advising her for some time…
Page 47 9th January Tuesday 1934
Since a week ago and for a long while to come, much time lost, torment and expense because of dental treatment. I have unfortunately had to give up old Petri, upright but Aryan, to support Israel. Dr Isakowitz, father of my student Lore Isakowitz, who is sometimes his assistant.
Page 55 March 2nd 1934 Friday evening
I wound up this bad semester on Wednesday. I took the penultimate Corneille class with the ‘Jewish quota’ that is, little Isakowitz and the last one with her and a young man who will now take his state examination with Wengler.
Page 96 Tuesday 4th December 1934
Eva (Klemperer’s Aryan wife) is feeling better; she is faring remarkably well with the lengthy dental treatment. These long journeys into town are almost stimulation, she likes Isakowitz – I am always in the treatment room. (Dentist – housework, housework, housework – semester- is it any wonder that Voltaire is taking so long?)
Page 99 Sunday 30th December 1934
On the first day of the holiday we ate at the station in the evening, walked a little down the Prager Strasse and return on the F bus which, fortunately for us has been running between Nausslitz and the Neustädtische railway station since 1st November. (So, at least we no longer have the inordinate cost of the taxis.) – (Coming from the dentist, Isakowitz often takes us part of the way in his own car. We are usually there at half past twelve, Eva then has something light to eat in town, and we perhaps do some shopping and back for coffee. A regular arrangement twice a week.
Page 103 1st January 1935 Thursday
So from Easter I shall have no more students and have to retire, i.e. be reduced from 800M to 400. But even now I can hardly meet my obligations, the life insurance must remain unpaid and when on earth Isakowitz will see his money is quite uncertain.
Page 105 Wednesday 16th January 1935
Isakowitz- after the treatment it is by now usual for him to drive us in his car to the station where Eva has a soup, today after the removal of her bridge fairly toothless- again expresses the mood of Jewry and today, in fact my own also.
Page 114 Easter Monday 22nd April 1935
Eva meanwhile has got trouble with her teeth again, new expeditions to Isakowitz have begun, there will be a new bill.
Thursday 2nd May 1935
Lore Isakowitz also appeared and asked me for books-she now wants to get a qualification at the Department of Oriental Languages in Berlin- which I promised her for Tuesday.
Page 120 Tuesday 11th June 1935
After our meal on Sunday the Isakowitzes picked us up in their handsome car and drove us to the Bastei……All three of the Isakowitzes, father, daughter and mother are very agreeable people, the wife is painted and done up like a Babylonian whore trying to hide her decline, but she has quite a simple and obliging nature…
Page 122 Sunday 30th June 1935
Through Annemarie Kohler’s intervention I very quickly came by an excellent typewriter. Isakowitz’s ‘Little Erika’ was a) a loan and b) not ideal.
Page 125 Sunday 11th August 1935
The three Isakowitzes were here one in the evening for coffee. He touchingly offered me money, if my pension should not arrive. He said his nerves were finished, and he is thinking of emigrating.
Page 128-9 Sunday 6th October 1935
It so happened that on two occasions in the last few weeks we were with the Isakowitzes twice in one day. Eva unexpectedly required a supplementary repair, in the evenings of the two days the three Isakowitzes were first of all our guests for coffee, the second time our hosts , for supper,(which unfortunately demands a return match) and that on the Jewish New Year. It turned out that the Isakowitzes are more orthodox than we had realised; the man came from ‘temple’ (I have not heard that word for thirty years), his head covered he read from the Torah, a hat was put on my head too, candles burned. I found it quite painful. Where do I belong? To the ‘Jewish Nation’ decrees Hitler. And I feel the Jewish nation recognised by Isakowitz is a comedy and am nothing but a German or German European.-The mood on both evenings was one of extreme depression. Isakowitz fears that at any moment he will no longer be allowed to treat insured patients and thus be deprived of a living. He has been considering emigration to Palestine for some time. An Aryan has long wanted to buy his practice from him for 15,000M. He at last decides on this sale- with the heaviest of hearts, because in Palestine there is said to be at least one doctor in every house- when at the last moment such sales of Jewish practises are forbidden. His wife has gone to Berlin to make enquiries at the ‘Jewish town hall in Meineckestrasse’ i.e. the advice centre of the Zionists which now represent all German –Jewish interests. Mood of panic, crowds of people, broken windows from the last rampage , which are ostentatiously left unrepaired, strongly advised to emigrate, more and more people fleeing.-At the service (the New Year celebration , the time of joy!) the rabbi’s words had been deeply depressing, he had spoken a prayer for the dead, there had been many tears……
Page 131 Sunday 19th October 1935
On the 8th we had the Wieghardts and the Isakowitzes for supper. He is now trying to find a living in England. His wife is there at the moment to make enquiries. We are prisoners without hope of rescue.
Page 132 Thursday 31st October 1935
On Sunday afternoon the three Isakowitzes were here .Frau Isakowitz was in London for a week; there is a possibility that her husband will be allowed to practise as a dentist in England without sitting an examination. She relates that the rabbis peach the boycott of German goods from the pulpit; they addressed the women: It’s natural that your husbands do not order machines from German for their factories; but you must not buy any Odol mouthwash or other toilet or domestic things! Her Christian landlady said to her with reference to Hitler: ‘And there is nobody who kills this big swine? ‘People say we are ruled by madmen, are completely bankrupt-it cannot last much longer.
Page 138 postscripts to 1935 noted down 1st January 1936
In the course of this year we won as new friends the Isakowitz family. That has turned into a really warm friendship with the father, mother and daughter. They will probably emigrate to England and that would be a real loss for us.
Page 147 Tuesday 11th February 1936
Last Sunday the Isakowitzes were our guests in the evening. The man is much worn down by worry and uncertainty; despite his despair he told terribly smutty jokes, he himself said; ‘Out of despair’.
Page 149 6th March 1936
Isakowitz informed me by telephone that he has permission to practise in England and wants to leave in April. We shall soon be quite alone.
Page 152 Sunday 5th April 1936
Last Sunday the Isakowitzes, man and wife were here; ready to depart for London, very nervous and low in spirit.
Page 160 Saturday 30th May 1936
The Isakowitzes farewell visit last Sunday was fairly depressing, and the leave-taking today at the station very depressing. It was from the women; over Whitsun the family is staying with relatives in Landeck, while he is returning to his surgery for one more week, will also complete Eva’s treatment; mother and daughter are travelling to London via Berlin. The day before yesterday I fetched flowers, which have been left to us from their liquidated apartment. A repetition of the Blumenfeld’s departure. Nothing has changed in the meantime; the power of the Third Reich has only grown even larger and more secure.
Page 162 Friday 12TH June 1936
Isakowitz was with us-for the last time- yesterday evening.
Page 165 Sunday 28th June 1936
Isakowitz finally took his leave of us on Thursday evening; he was very tired and nervous- a new table cloth suffered the consequences, in a single movement he poured a whole cup of coffee over it – but nonetheless in high spirits. Because at 45 years of age he is once again making a new start, because he is moving from servitude and lawlessness to human and civilised conditions .Yet it was visibly hard for him to leave Germany. He philosophised a great deal and talked about art, with somewhat limited knowledge and clarity but with much interest and an evident moral foundation. I heard with satisfaction that despite the ‘customs examination’ he has still managed to get some property safely abroad, and that other émigrés evidently also repeatedly find opportunities to do so.
Page 250 Tuesday 1th July 1938
Frau Shaps writes of her children settling down in London and of contact made with Isakowitz the dentist. All these people have made new lives for themselves- but I have not succeeded in doing so, we have been left in disgrace and penury, in some degree buried alive, buried up to the neck so to speak and waiting from day to day for the last shovelfuls.
88 x 128 cms, Unique, 2013.
An RAF memo issued to airmen of Bomber Command on the night of the attack said;
‘Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance…. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front… and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.’
Dresden artist Otto Greibel’s eyewitness account as he hurried to relative safety of the Elbe;
‘Everywhere we turned, the buildings were on fire. The spark filled air was suffocating, and stung out unprotected eyes. But we could not stay here. Entire chunks of red hot matter were flying at us. The more we moved into the network of street, the stronger the storm became, hurling burning scraps and objects through the air.’
Churchill, who was certainly both complicit and responsible for the command, tried after the event to distance himself;
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.
Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, on seeing the draft of this communiqué, responded to the Air Ministry;
I … assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe. Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.
The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.
As Taylor wrote:
“The destruction of Dresden has an epically tragic quality to it. It was a wonderfully beautiful city and a symbol of baroque humanism and all that was best in Germany. It also contained all of the worst from Germany during the Nazi period. In that sense it is an absolutely exemplary tragedy for the horrors of 20th century warfare and a symbol of destruction
The images in this print include the remains of the Dresden skyline after the bombing, rubble, maps of areas destroyed, a cross section of an Avro Lancaster Heavy Bomber, controls and dashboard of a Lancaster and part of the recently erected Bomber Command Memorial in St James Park London.
The weather was unusually good for the time of year, warm and spring like and the following day Shrove Tuesday was a day for ‘Fasching’ an albeit toned down wartime version of the Carnival. The bridges over the Elbe still stood firm as did my grandparents house at Werderstrasse 44 in Plauen. The spectacular circular staircase of the art academy stands as a metaphor for the terrifying vortex into which they city was about to swirl, a plan already formulated in the RAF flight path map.