Mom kept over sixty years of her private war locked up inside her.
Mom is a survivor.
It was during one of my annual visits to New York when she decided to open up to me. That week in January was so cold: with record breaking minus fifteen-degree temperatures, we decided to stay inside. Besides, being in California for the past two decades left me with thin skin and tolerance, leaving me inadequate to brave the winds.
Mom and I decided to go through her bedroom closet and organize it. Being the taller of the two, I started to take things down from the top shelf. There was a shallow cardboard box wedged in the back corner. The package had a dusty, plastic sheet over it. It seemed clear to me the box may have been there since the move-in from the early 70s’. The carton and I made our way to her bed, where inside was a brown, worn leather portfolio containing photographs. Perhaps Mom forgot it was there but I was intrigued.
I motioned to Mom, “Come over and sit down with me for a minute.” She was in the back of her closet admiring a pair of shoes. At eighty-four years old, Mom wouldn’t be able to navigate in a heel that tall. We shared a laugh about the impossibility that either one of us could walk in those shoes. Mom joined me at the bed, and that minute turned into four hours. Inside the binder were photos she carried with her from a Deportation Camp in Germany in the year 1945 to Ellis Island, New York in 1949.
Those few hours, sitting on her bed was when I decided to write Mom’s memoirs. Her memories are the basis of another story currently in the works. The story I’d like to tell you now is about my journey. How I came about finding the information to go forward to write about Mom’s journey and the kindness of many strangers.
One particular black and white photograph I found in the binder piqued my interest-a man seated, wearing a uniform with a Royal crest on his sleeves. On the back, he wrote,
“Mein Lieber Rozi,
Eutin, Marz 1946″
I asked Mom who Ernst Finch was, and she replied, “He’s the soldier who saved my life.” There was an awkward silence for what seemed like minutes but was only seconds.
“Ernst Finch,” she said again without even turning the photo over to read the inscription. I asked her what he wrote and the translation was something like, “My dear Rozi, with inspiration, his name and Eutin, the name of the city and the year.”
“Please tell me what you remember about him,” I asked.
“The Germans put us on a train. I don’t know where they took us but it was a relief from the marching we did for days. Above us, I heard the roar of plane engines, I think. Suddenly, a loud noise, lights of many colors flashing. Our train was bombed. My cousins and I ran toward the woods. I felt the warm, sticky feel of blood on my neck when I touched it, but I really don’t think I felt anything at that point. I was not in pain. I just wanted to run to safety. I ran as far as we could, until I couldn’t run anymore. Weak and barely able to breathe, I fell to the ground. I don’t know how long I’d been there, but I saw a tank come to me. I remember thinking, ‘they’ll kill us for sure’. I must have passed out because the next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital bed. At that point, I don’t know how much time had passed. In the corner, sitting in a chair, much like in the picture, I see him. Ernst Finch.” She pointed to the photo.
She continued with her story, the details pouring out of her like water.
“He told me the story of how his Company saw me, and my two cousins bleeding in the woods. That day was May 3, 1945. He got us Red Cross and placed us in hospitals. He sent soldiers to stand guard for our safety and a few years later, he arranged for my relatives in New York to meet your Dad and I at Ellis Island, in America.”
My head was spinning as I absorbed all this new information. ‘I must write her story down,’ I promised myself. Living three thousand miles away, I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy task. So much dialogue would be by telephone. I didn’t want it to sound like an interrogation. I’m confident she had a lot of that all those years ago. In the past, the Spielberg Foundation approached Mom for her testimony. She declined them many times. I’m sure she had been questioned extensively, and would not welcome more no matter how many years passed by.
One thought kept plaguing me. I needed to thank this man, Ernst Finch and his family. Mom told me she didn’t remember thanking him after the war ended. He at least deserved that much.
And so, when I got back to the comfort of my home computer, my research began. I posted a note to BAOR-British Army Of The Rhine, and included Finch’s photo. I posted the same notes and photos to all the British War Museum links I could find. I posted notes to Holocaust websites, and the DP Camp websites. Months went by and I didn’t hear back from anyone. I was getting discouraged.
Finally, that September, I received e-mail from a lady in London, England named Lynne Finch. She told me Ernest Finch was her father. My heart raced when I finally thought all these months of research paid off. The pieces fit until she mailed me copies of photographs. Clearly, he was not the same soldier. My photo revealed a short man, with dark hair and eyes. Her father was tall and blond. Defeated but not down, we bonded a lasting friendship to this day. Lynne Finch is still searching for any information on her dad. I do what I can to help.
After many more months of research and “googling,” I found a book written about the slave labor camp Muna Lubberstedt Mom was in after Auschwitz. I contacted the author and he kindly sent me the book no charge. It is entirely written in German. Rudy Kahrs has been invaluable to me with research. He sent me copies of letters and pictures and some interpretation of the book he wrote. My next mission is to find someone to read the book to me or take up the German language.
After a few months, I got a response from BAOR’s website administrator whose name is Phil.
Phil wrote me, “The uniform Ernst Finch is wearing in the photo shows he was a Warrant Officer. He’s someone very important in his Company. He will do more research and get back to me.” I heard nothing for a while after.
A few days later, Alan Yates emails me with more information and book recommendations. Alan confirmed what Phil wrote. Ernest Finch was a Warrant Officer, Second Class in the Royal Regiment of Artillery. I’m elated because things are starting to piece together. Alan’s months of hard work eventually led to information that Ernst Finch was once Ernst Fink, who fled Germany to go to England to fight with the Kings Army. Several books on the subject list these men and women as “Enemy Aliens.”
Alan has been invaluable to me, and my research. If not for him, I don’t know that I would have come this far. We have become very good friends but limited only to computer bytes. One day I would very much like to meet Alan Yates in person. I thank Alan every day for his research and persistence. Without him, I doubt I would have been able to connect the dots.
Through more research, we come to find Ernst Fink was a “Dunera Boy.” This was a ship by the same name that sailed from England to Australia early on in the war. Great Britain was not all convinced these ‘Enemy Aliens’ could be trusted, so they sent thousands there. Later on, Britain sent these men and women back to England. Many were sent back to Germany toward war’s end to serve as translators in POW camps.
Ernst Fink went back to England, and then sent to France and Germany to defend Great Britain. There he stayed until 1948, serving his Army as an interpreter in Germany and governed over the Deportation Camp my mother was placed in.
For a while this was as far as Alan and I got with information. I fretted, having come so far. How was I going to find where he went? I desperately wanted to thank him for saving my Mom. I tried “Googling” his name but came up short with every spelling variation. Alan was helping but coming up short too. Information slowed down for both of us.
Finally, through Alan Yates’s diligence, we found Queen Mary ship registries showing Ernst Finch left England for the USA in 1948. The ship registry showed Ernst’s wife name. I decided to “Google” it, and the first thing that Google brought up was an obituary. Ilsa Finch died in 2007. I got Goosebumps all over my body. I felt I was this close to thanking this family.
The obituary listed the names of two nieces living in San Diego. I used LinkedIn and Facebook to send messages. Two days later, I got a response back from one of the nieces. Her mother was Ilsa’s great-niece. She offered me her mother’s phone number. Indeed, Ernst Finch was her Great Uncle. He had lived in San Diego till 1972, where he died. We spoke at length and I offered my condolences and thanked her for his great deeds.
To think; Ernst Finch, the Officer who saved my mothers life lived only an hour from me. Imagine, if Ernst Finch lived and I found him after 1989, which was when I moved out here? Mom used to come to California every year and stay for six weeks at a time. Imagine if Ernst Finch and Mom reunited? I wonder to this day if it would have been utterly wonderful, awkward or uneventful given the fact that Mom buried her secrets so deep within her.
My research led me to other places with the help of Alan Yates, but I will save them for another time.
* * * * *
Alan Yates, thank you for all your hard work and kindness, and to Lynne, Phil and Rudy and Ilsa’s nieces. You have helped me through the kindness of your hearts, expecting nothing in return, I thank you all~ one day I will pay if forward.
Mom, I love you and I know how difficult this is. Thank you.
The genesis of this story is based on a book I’m writing.
That book’s working title is Because of Sergeant Finch.
By Es Goodman from the December 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
*There are many stories like this still out there but they are dwindling as survivors from the Holocaust and WWII are passing away daily. If you know of someone who has saved their story deep inside talk to them now, listen, write it down. One of our greatest failings is that we don’t share and pass down our past and that the young people today are no longer interested. History repeats itself if we do not share it and then learn from it. Let us all make sure that this never happens again!!
I have stories from the other side of this coin. My parents and their families were young Germans and Austrians swept up in the times, without many choices. Es Goodman has offered to help me find some background information and photos that I don’t have. Share just one more survivor’s, victim’s, or hero’s story. We will all be better for it! Marion Groetzmeier Algier~