November 1, 2010

Peter Ernest Monash, the European years

The man later known as Peter Ernest Monash was born Ernst Rainer Monasch, on August 16, 1924, in the German town of Rudolstadt, where his father Alfred Monasch had recently opened a factory that employed a couple hundred of workers. His life was probably not unlike that of an only child, in that his brother and sister were 10 and 11 years older respectively. He was smart, high-strung, fast, and short. From all I know he was basically a normal kid, leading what for that era and socioeconomic class was a normal life. I know from one story that he was lousy at Latin, but I’d guess that overall he did pretty well in school — and even that supposedly not-known Latin was, from time to time, quoted to me at the dinner table.

In 1933, the Nazis took power. My grandfather was what one called a “Hitlerjude” — somebody who did not regard himself as Jewish at all, but whom the Nazis regarded as a Jew even so. The most immediate consequence for my father is that he was trundled off to whatever school could be found to accept a “Jew”. Then, as things got worse, he was sent to France, to stay with one of my grandfather’s business associates (I believe the French representative for his business).

I’m not sure how well my Dad was treated by his French host family. My mother thought it was pretty badly. My father, who was actually there, wasn’t as harsh in his views. Anyhow, they did feed and shelter him, and eventually took him along when they tried to escape France ahead of the German invasion. That is to say, they bicycled south to the Pyrenees — but were turned back at the Spanish border. And so my father, in 1940 or so, was returned to Germany.

My father’s mother was unquestionably Christian, and so his status was that of half-Jew, or “Mischling.” This made him ineligible to serve in the military, not in itself a terrible drawback. Indeed, since he spoke French, wasn’t in the military, and was a factory-owner’s son, he was sent back to occupied France to run a factory of some sort. He traveled hiding in the back of an onion truck, for fear of the early French Resistance. But he fell seriously ill — I always forget whether the ailment was typhus or typhoid fever — and by the time he recuperated the factory-running plan was discarded.

The Monasch family relocated from Rudolstadt to Berlin. Alfred Monasch went into hiding, helped by his Christian in-laws. The rest of the family was restricted to menial jobs, as well as the privations of war-time rationing, and later of air raids as well. There was evidently some significant ill-treatment even beyond that, but I was never told details.

In 1944 a number of able-bodied Mischling men such as my father received a call-up notice. They were bundled into two trains of cattle cars, on adjacent tracks, to be sent in different directions. My father found himself opposite his friend Jan Boehm and, impulsively, climbed from his car to Jan’s. That decision saved his life. At the camp my father and Jan Boehm were sent to — Zerbst — 5-10% of the inmates escaped, my father and his friend included. At the other camp (whose name I have forgotten), evidently nobody survived.

Zerbst was pretty awful, including tortures of various sorts. But I never was told which, if any, my father suffered personally. I do know that for decades thereafter he slept with a sheet or blanket over his head, a habit developed due to rats. He stole food to survive.

Somehow, the inmates had access to a radio, from which they learned that the advancing allied armies were finding, in the work camps they liberated, that all the inmates had been killed. This was, to put it mildly, a cause for concern. But on the night after they finished building the airstrip that had been their project, the Americans hit it with an air raid — neatly obliterating, as my father told it, a strip right up the center of the runway, rendering it unusable.

One casualty of the air raid was the electric fence, and so there was a mass escape. According to figures my father later saw, 150 or out of 2000 inmates successfully escaped, including his friend Jan Boehm. (Googling suggests those numbers may have been a bit off, but the general idea seems right.)

By the time he escaped, a soon-to-be-defeated Germany was in chaos. He made his way back to Berlin, rejoined his family, and eventually found himself in a liberated Russian sector. He got a job working for the Americans as translator. Eventually — I believe in 1948, but when I see some papers I may discover it was a year or two earlier — he was the first member of his immediate family to immigrate to the United States.

And that seems like a good point at which to break off  this particular post. There are a number of anecdotes I’d like to record and convey, but it seems more urgent to complete a basic life history for both of my parents than it is to drill into the specifics of any particular period in their lives.


5 Responses to “Peter Ernest Monash, the European years”

  1. Peter Monash, the second quarter-century | Software Memories on November 1st, 2010 9:04 am

    […] you knew him to be a very personable and social man.* Frankly, I don’t know any stories from his life in Germany or France that particularly bear that out, save perhaps in the immediate WW2 aftermath when — like […]

  2. Ken Galloway on November 1st, 2010 10:17 am

    Curt, while I heard your father mention a few times about how everything in life seemed positive after twice escaping from Hitler control, this history is fascinating and ‘pulls it all together’ with more clarity. Thank you for sharing.

  3. MIchael on November 2nd, 2010 1:05 pm

    Curt, this info is fascinating. Really is motivating me to fill in the blanks with my family history. You are so blessed to be able to share this history. Thanks!

  4. Where I’m going with these obituaries | Software Memories on November 3rd, 2010 3:19 am

    […] Peter Monash’s life before he immigrated to the United States. […]

  5. For those who cared about the late Peter and Anita Monash | Software Memories on September 28th, 2012 5:00 pm

    […] Peter Monash’s life before he immigrated to the United States. […]

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