Geraldine explains why her mother and grandmother went to Sweden after the war. She describes their life there. She then explains the unusual way her mother met the young man, who became her husband.
INT: And then your mother, you told us this before, ended up in Sweden, with her mother?
GS: She did, she did. My grandma, her mum, was pretty unwell at the time with typhoid and she was put in isolation in a hospital, that was created by the army and they were re-housed with other survivors in brick built barracks that were originally occupied by the Hungarian soldiers, because obviously the brick built were much warmer buildings.
INT: These were Hungarian soldiers who had helped the Nazis?
GS: Yeah, yeah and she was looked after by, I mentioned him earlier, an Irish volunteer doctor named Sean Stiles and he befriended my mum and my grandma and came for meals which my grandma cooked when she became better. And he took my mum to a British headquarters’ party, where she was introduced to Field Marshall Montgomery, and she said that she declined the offer of a drink from him, but she had a dance with him and a very interesting talk. Because she was so fluent with her languages, she was so clever, she became an interpreter for the British Army.
And she said that the British Army had orders to burn the whole of Bergen-Belsen, as it was so infectious from so much disease. And we’ve got a painting that she did of the ceremony of burning of the last block in Bergen-Belsen.
And Doctor Stiles decided that my grandma was too undernourished to survive if she went back to Prague as the food on the continent was pretty scarce; that it would be much better for to go on a Red Cross boat from Hamburg to Sweden, which she did. Even on that boat – I know that because we have one of her pictures in the book – my mum painted. There was a beautiful girl who was dying on the boat. It was a Jewish Dutch girl who was in the terminal stage of tuberculosis and it was she that my mum painted. The boat was filled, unfortunately, with very ill and weak people going for, hopefully, to recover, and a better, a better life. Which certainly happened to my mum and my grandma.
INT: Go on.
GS: And they arrived, and it was in Malmo, in the summer of 1945 with their very meagre possessions and they were disinfected with DDT, before they disembarked. And it was the Jewish community that took an interest in them and some of them were invited to homes and they even put on a show for them, and they were taken from Malmo to a camp of wooden chalets to a forest near Gothenburg and my grandma was taken to a sanatorium and was nursed back to good health.
And my mum made friends with a shoe manufacturer, a gentleman called Herbert Schterner, who came with his eldest daughter to visit my mum. Her name was Mirre. And my mum and Mirre, they became lifelong friends. She used to come and visit her at the refugee camp.
INT: It must have been such an up and down journey for your mother, from horrors to rescue.
GS: Yep, but you know, she pulled through. Imagine, by November 1945 she made her first exhibition of her Bergen-Belsen drawings and watercolours and sold stuffed toys that she made. And there were very good reviews about her in the Gothenburg newspapers and she also worked there, in the graphic studio and design. Her mother later joined her in the camp when she was well and she got a job as a milliner in a large department store. And between them, they had enough money to keep themselves and eventually they settled properly in Gothenburg and moved to a lovely flat, just outside the city, where my mum established her own studio, designing hand-painted Christmas mats [for a large department store] and table decorations. And she even managed to employ a few girls, eventually, and her mother, grandma, gave up work and looked after my mum. In those days, like a mother did.
INT: And she was the breadwinner, your mum, so that’s why.
GS: Yes, she painted lovely things. Some of the mats are on display in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
When we were children, there was always this big trunk in our loft that we were not really allowed to touch. Inside it were some of the hand-painted mats that she made at the time in Sweden. They’re absolutely beautiful. The way she cut them into beautiful shapes and yes, these were a few of her meagre, amazing possessions. And in Theresienstadt she left things with a friend, who managed to keep a few of her drawings from then and from Prague. And she managed to get some of her things. She got them back.
INT: And she lost everything, I believe, from Auschwitz; none of that survived?
GS: Yes, from Auschwitz, no. That’s why she did the frieze by memory. Nothing survived.
And, there’s a happy ending, otherwise I wouldn’t be here telling the story.
INT: She met your father?
GS: She met my father. My mum made a good friend in Sweden. Her friend Margit. Her German born husband, Helmut, he died at a young age and they had a baby, a little son. And she went to Glasgow to take her baby to visit the baby’s grandmother, who was a lady called Mrs Silverman who lived in Braemar Street, in Battlefield in Glasgow. And when Margit was visiting her mother-in-law she met this German refugee, who lodged with Mrs Silverman and she gave him my mum’s address and they started to write to each other and the romance, began. And he came to visit my mum in the summer of 1951 and then he went with her and my grandmother for a holiday in Gstadt on the coast. And they got engaged. It all happened very quickly.