As a child, comedian David Baddiel felt a strong emotional connection with his maternal grandfather, Ernst, a German Jew who fled his native land just weeks before the Nazi regime invaded Poland. Now David is a father himself, he regrets not asking Ernst more about his early life.
“Because my family experience is one of immigration and ‘refugee-ism’, you’re never entirely sure how you ended up here,” says David. Belatedly learning more about his family, David finds a story of lost wealth and wartime internment, in addition to discovering a branch of his family he never knew existed.
David begins his research at the home of his parents, Sarah and Colin. Sarah was just five months old when her own parents, Ernst and Otti Fabian, escaped Germany. To discover more, David heads to his grandfather’s former home, Königsberg, formerly German territory but now an exclave of Russia bordered by Lithuania and Poland.
Before David leaves, his mother drops a bombshell: Sarah suspects she may have been her uncle Arno Radbil’s daughter, adopted by Ernst and Otti in order to get her out of Germany.
Königsberg is now called Kaliningrad and was heavily damaged during the Second World War. Yet before Europe descended into conflict, it was a vibrant university town. As owners of a brick factory, the Fabians were wealthy and central to the city’s cultural life.
The rise of the Nazism changed the family’s fortunes. At the end of a muddy track, David goes to visit the site of the family’s brickworks, but there’s now little to see beyond a few desultory ruins. “This makes me feel as if my past has been blown out of existence,” he says.
At least Ernst got out; just three weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland, paying £1,000 (£40,000 today) for a visa to England. David’s great-uncle Arno, who seems unlikely to have been Sarah’s father judging by a letter that David finds amongst Ernst’s papers, wasn’t so lucky. Instead, he was last heard of in Warsaw but David can find no clues to Arno’s fate in the city. Did he starve in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto or die violently in the 1943 uprising against the Nazis? David will never know.
Escape from persecution
Not that coming to England was in itself the end of Ernst’s problems. In 1940, like many others from Eastern Europe, Ernst was sent to an internment camp amidst fears there might be spies amongst the refugees. Apparently, though, Ernst quite enjoyed the experience. His ‘camp’ was a converted hotel on the seafront in the Isle of Man. He shared his captivity with a remarkable five Nobel laureates. In April 1941, Ernst was released.
Ernst isn’t the only traveller in David’s family tree. His Latvian paternal great-grandfather, Barnett Baddiel, was one of 120,000 Eastern European Jews who came to the UK at the turn of the century to escape persecution. Barnett had a brother, Harry, and David discovers that Harry’s descendents, Osher and Clive, are noted teachers.
Harry’s descendents are religious Jews and David heads to Golders Green to learn more. There he meets another David Baddiel in the street by chance, a distant cousin who describes himself as a rebel. However, David’s research into his father’s family ends here: he wants to meet his family only with the cameras there, they want to meet only without the cameras present.
As David’s mother threatens to torch his house by lighting an alarming number of candles on a birthday cake, his journey into the past is at an end. One lingering question remains unresolved: even if Sarah wasn’t Arno’s daughter, could she nevertheless have been adopted? It’s a question that says much about the upheavals caused by the Second World War, but one that will probably never be answered.