Solving a tragic mystery of past
MORPETH ROTARY CLUB
Otto Meth-Cohn explained how he solved the mystery of his past.
In his early life had no birth certificate or documentation.
In June 1939, he was put on a train from Germany to Holland, got to Harwich and travelled to Paddington Station with a label, suitcase and dressed like Paddington Bear in a small red smock made by his mother.
After much detective work he found a birth certificate that said he was born at The Hague on April 12, 1935, and his mother’s name was Dorothea Cohn.
His mother was born in Germany, although her grandparents were from Poland. Her father, Alfred Meth, sold goods from a horse and cart. The family moved to Schwabisch Gmund where they had four children. They set up a shop, then a series of Meth department stores.
The SA, Nazi supporters, noted anyone using the shop and beat them up. Otto’s grandfather had to sell the shops and moved near the French border to Baden Baden.
His mother was given charge of a Meth store in Germany, but became a sort of social worker. She had an affair with a member of the SA. They went on holiday to Lake Constance, where she became pregnant with Otto. It was the year that Hitler declared that no German could have a relationship with a Jew. To protect him, she refused to tell anyone the name of the father and went to Holland to give birth.
Otto tried to find the SA records, but they had been destroyed in a bombing raid. She stayed in Holland for three months, then moved in with a friend, before she was reconciled to her family.
In 1938, when Otto was three-and-a-half, she took over a children’s home near Ulm. In November of that year ‘Kristallnacht’ took place. All Jewish houses and properties were smashed. Otto’s mother had been with an elderly rabbi called Cohn, nursing his wife. The rabbi was almost beaten to death. The wife died.
Married rabbis could leave Germany, but not their wives, so she married him and arranged for him to go to Britain. He moved to Edinburgh in 1939, but died a few months later.
Within two weeks of Kristallnacht Britain arranged to take in 10,000 children from suffering families in an operation called ‘Kindertransport’. Otto was number 7048.
When all Jews were taken out of the area, Otto’s mother stayed to look after 25 elderly Jews. In 1942 they were shipped to concentration camps. She survived most of the war, but in 1945 the Jews were sent to Auschwitz and gassed.
Otto was placed in Scotland with two artists who lived there and in the Cotswolds. They were family of Sir Fabian Ware, who had set up the War Graves Commission with Churchill.
On the 80th anniversary of Kindertransport Otto was invited to speak by his home town in Germany. There is a memorial to the dead in Ulm that has the name of the rabbi, his mother and himself. Otto wrote a book about what he had discovered.