New book reveals dreadful fate of former MP's family

Peter Bradley's new book tells the heartbreaking story of a family ripped apart by the Nazis.

The Brandes family: Fritz, with parents Sally and Bertha
The Brandes family: Fritz, with parents Sally and Bertha

A young man sat on a park bench in the sunshine, writing a letter to his parents about life in England.

He marvelled at the courtesy and honesty of the locals, particularly the newspaper seller who would leave his stall unattended, knowing his customers would put their money on the counter.

He ended his letter by telling his parents the best way to learn English was to enter conversation with the many friendly strangers who would happily chat about the weather on the bus.

"When you come here, you will soon learn this language," he told them.

They never did come. While the 24-year-old became one of the last Jews to flee Nazi Germany when he boarded the train from Frankfurt, his fiercely patriotic parents were reluctant to leave the country they loved.

Instead, they would soon board a train in the opposite direction, as prisoners of the evil regime. The young man's mother, Bertha, was made to strip naked before being gunned down next to a ditch near Riga. His father, Salamon, or Sally as he was known, was last seen alive as a slave working on a peat bog in Latvia.

The harrowing story of a family torn apart is now being told by the young man's son, former Wrekin MP Peter Bradley.

Peter Bradley

His new book, The Last Train, paints a moving but harrowing picture of the contrasting fortunes of two generations torn apart by the wickedness of the Nazi regime.

Peter recounts how, as a child, he was always aware that his family was slightly different from others.

"My sister Anne and I sensed it, but didn't know how or why," he says.

"When we were small, our parents often spoke German to each other at the table, but stopped when we began to pick out words and phrases we weren't supposed to understand.

"They didn't explain why they spoke this foreign language, nor did they encourage us to learn it. They didn't want us to be different."

Then one day, when nosing about in his father's desk drawer he came across some documents which provided a clue. He discovered that plain Fred Bradley had previously been known as Fritz Brandes. The discovery was something of a bombshell for the young boy.

Fred Bradley

"He had been someone else, he had another life," says Peter. "For an impressionable young boy, a voracious consumer of myths and legends, this discovery was exhilarating as well as well as unsettling. But for many more years it remained a mystery. There were no answers, because we did not know what questions to ask."

Some of these answers came about half a century later. In 2010, following the death of his mother, Trudie, Peter was sorting through her belongings when he found a small trunk hidden in a dark recess of the understairs cupboard. Here, Fred had neatly packed up his treasured mementos from his previous life. Fred's Tallit – a Jewish prayer shawl – and the Jewish holy book, the Torah; regimental insignia from his time in the British Army, and, neatly bound up, and each formally stamped with a censor's swastika, 35 letters to young Fritz from his parents back in his home town of Bamberg in Germany.

These letters, plus another 700 letters he and his mother had exchanged while he had been serving with the British Army in India, revealed the horrors which had tormented his father throughout his life.

In 1933, Fritz Brandes was a carefree 18-year-old with an apparently bright future ahead of him.

Sally Brandes' drapery shop in Bamberg

The only son of Sally Brandes, a comfortably well-off businessman, and his wife Bertha, he had a happy life in the picturesque Bavarian town of Bamberg. While Adolf Hitler, who had been sworn in as chancellor in January that year, had left people in little doubt about his antipathy towards Germany's Jews, the persecution had yet to begin in earnest.

This life of peace and contentment wouldn't last. Over the years that followed, the pressure was gradually ratcheted up until life became intolerable. Non Jews were urged to boycott Jewish businesses, and uniformed pickets started to appear outside Sally's drapery store.

In 1935, Jews were banned from serving in the military or from acting on stage or screen. Then on September 15 that year they were stripped of their German citizenship, preventing them from holding political office, voting in elections or marrying non-Jews.

But it was 'Kristallnacht' – the Night of the Broken Glass – on November 9, 1938, and the reprisals which followed, that finally convinced Fritz Brandes he had no future as a Jew in Germany.

Fred Bradley, born Fritz Brandes, with wife Trudie during the Second World War

Two days earlier, a 17-year-old Jewish boy had shot German diplomat Ernst vom Rath at the embassy in Paris, and when he died two days later, Hitler was furious. The Fuhrer, who was about to deliver a speech to the Nazi high command at a party dinner, left the building immediately on hearing the news, leaving his right-hand man Joseph Goebbels to deliver the address. Goebbels told those attending the dinner that the party would not involve itself in any "demonstrations" against vom Rath's murder, but would not hamper any that "spontaneously" occurred. The German government had effectively consented to two nights of rioting and looting.

The riots that followed destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland, with 1,400 synagogues and prayer rooms suffering damage. More than 7,000 Jewish shops, and 29 department stores were damaged, and in many cases destroyed. To add insult to injury, the authorities imposed a 20 per cent levy on every Jew's assets to cover the costs of the damage.

But more was to come. More than 30,000 Jewish men were arrested in the aftermath of the riots, including Fritz Brandes, who was sent to Buchenwald, and his father Sally, who was held in Dachau.

Bertha and Sally Brandes

"It was Buchenwald which crushed whatever faith he had left, he couldn't see how a loving God would allow that to happen," says Peter.

"It was also there that he learned not to stand out, to blend into the background. Because if you did anything to stand out in the camp, you would be the first to be picked out. It was something that stayed with him throughout his life."

Ironically, it might also have been his incarceration which saved his life. While he was held at Buchenwald, an aid agency issued him with a visa allowing him to stay in the UK for two years, and within weeks of his release, he took up the opportunity.

On May 10, 1939, his parents waved him off as he boarded a train for the Dutch border. It was the last time they would see each other, his parents still convinced they could ride the repression out.

"He had seen it coming, his parents had not," says Peter. "They were assimilated Jews, German patriots, solidly middle class, upstanding citizens. They thought they would outlive the Nazis. By the time they understood they could not, it was too late, they were trapped."

The Last Train by Peter Bradley

By this time, Sally had been forced to sell his business to a Nazi Party member. Fritz had also been sacked from his apprenticeship at a department store, to comply with new 'Aryanisation' laws, although he did leave with a glowing reference.

"Because of the Aryanisation of our business, Mr Brandes leaves our service as of today with our best wishes for the future," said his dismissal letter.

His parents would surely have wished they had taken the opportunity to flee when it had been possible.

In October, 1941, police chief Kurt Daluege signed orders for the 'evacuation' of 50,000 Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, with 118 to depart Bamberg on November 27.

The letter sent to Sally Brandes has been lost, but it would have been similar to the letters sent to other Jewish families, offering very precise instructions in the sort of cold, formal language beloved by bureaucrats. Included was a 16-page form in which they were required to detail all their assets. They were reminded to ensure they had 56.75 Reichsmarks to cover their rail fare.

The day before deportation, Sally wrote his heart-wrenching last letter to Fritz: "Now I have to tell you that we will be going away tomorrow, and it will therefore be a while before you hear from us again.

"We will be together with our family from Bayreuth. You can imagine we are glad to be with them. Now take care and keep well. Hopefully, the same will go for us."

The Brandes and their neighbours were escorted from their homes wearing signs with their names, dates of birth and ID numbers around their necks.

"Their faces must have been grey with fatigue and worry," says Peter.

"Some may have been clinging to the hope that the Nazi bureaucrats had fostered, that they were going to build a new life in some distant corner of the German Reich.

"Others would not have shared their optimism. All they could know was that the people who were sending them there did not mean them well."

Fritz later received a letter from his uncle, Siegfried, informing him that Sally and Bertha had been transported to Riga.

Peter's research found that Bertha was shot dead, having been ordered to remove her clothes. But trying to find what happened to his grandfather, Sally, proved more difficult, given that the retreating Germans destroyed most of their records. The last known sighting of Sally was on October 28, 1943, working on freezing peat bog in Riga.

He may have been transported to Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, as the Germans retreated from Latvia, but there is no record of him in the camp's archives.

"It is possible he may have died, as many did, during the terrible journey there," says Peter. "He could have been one of the 10,000-20,000 who, unregistered, were executed on arrival. But I doubt he made it that far."

More likely, Peter believes that once he had served his purpose on the peat bog, he would either have spent his last days cleaning up the ghetto which was in the process of being liquidated – and executed once deemed to have outlived his usefulness, or possibly sent on to Auschwitz.

"He wouldn't have been long in the ghetto," says Peter.

And no matter how long Sally might have lived after his last sighting, it would have been a tragic pitiful existence for a once proud and successful man.

* The Last Train: A Family History of the Final Solution by Peter Bradley is on sale in bookshops now. A limited number of signed copies are available at Waterstones in Shrewsbury, Telford and Birmingham.

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