Finding Norman: The Many Selves of a Kindertransportee
By Isaac Wills '23
Advised by Professor Natasha Wheatley
No man is an island unto himself.
On August 29, 1939, Norbert Müller boarded a train leaving Cologne, Germany for England.2 Part of the Kindertransport, which was “an entirely private effort…undertaken, administered, and overseen by [British] voluntary agencies” to rescue 10,000 mostly Jewish children, Norbert left the world he knew and the family he loved under harrowing circumstances.3 While Bloomsbury House—the main conglomerate of British Jewish aid groups responsible for the Kindertransport—had granted Norbert his travel permit for immigration earlier in the month, the fifteen-year-old did not have the papers necessary to seek transit through Holland.4 Having missed his connection in Würzburg, Norbert ended up in Cologne unsure of what to do next. By chance, his father Sebald, who was accompanying him to the German border, found another Kindertransport group at the Cologne train station. After sneaking into Cologne’s closed British consulate and forging authorization of Norbert’s permit with the office’s official stamp, Sebald was able to secure Norbert’s immigration with the new group. Norbert then parted ways with his father for the final time. On September 1, just after Norbert had arrived in London, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of the Second World War and, importantly, the end of Kindertransport immigration.5
The Kindertransport, to quote historian Jennifer Craig-Norton, “[is part of] Britain’s proud history of welcoming child refugees.”6 A scholar of interwar refugee crises, Craig-Norton writes how this private initiative, which was promoted by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, was a response to Kristallnacht, “the Reichwide pogrom of mass arrests and destruction of Jewish religious and commercial property…launched on November 9, 1938.”7 For the next ten months, agencies such as the Children’s Inter-Aid Committee and B’nai B’rith Care Committee for Refugee Children facilitated child refugees’ immigration and assimilation into British society. A remarkable historical moment of dizzying organizational interplay, the Kindertransport was, as historians Christoph Kreutzmüller and Jonathan Zatlin write, “[an] almost overnight accomplishment” and an exceptional case of “sophisticated rededication of foreign currency donations…aimed at funding the emigration of Jewish children.”8 At least initially, the British public believed the fostering of kinder like Norbert to be a “temporary arrangement.”9 But as the Second World War raged on, the horrors of the Holocaust erased hopes for reunion between the kinder and their families.
Due to the sheer number of children’s lives saved—Norbert’s among them—the enduring legacy of the Kindertransport is a “simple humanitarian narrative” of success.10 In her book The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory, Craig-Norton argues that this “uncomplicated narrative” is a lasting consequence of Gladys Skelton Bendit’s contemporaneous account A Great Adventure: The Story of the Refugee Children’s Movement.11 Bendit, who had founded the Children’s Inter-Aid Committee in 1936, was a leading consultant for the Kindertransport at Bloomsbury House.12 Publishing her book in 1944 under the pseudonym John Presland, Bendit maintained that the Kindertransport had been an unmitigated success.13 Craig-Norton asserts that Bendit’s account remains the prevailing narrative today.14 Contemporary pundits like Polly Toynbee, by contrast, argue that the Kindertransport “was never good.”15 Toynbee’s writing reflects a minority strain in the scholarship that views the Kindertransport as nothing more than “a government-mandated act of family separation.”16
Notably, Craig-Norton develops an understated, non-reductionist third strain in the scholarship that emphasizes how the kinder have become “passive actors” in their own story. By exploring the roles that all agents, i.e., the kinder, their families, the organizations, and the caretakers, played in the Kindertransport, Craig-Norton largely succeeds in decentering preexisting narratives about this complex humanitarian effort and rediscovering the child-agents. Certainly, she does not deny the kinder’s initial and often persistent need for help, asserting that they “were at their most dependent when they first arrived in Great Britain” and were reliant upon “the refugee committees to whom they remained beholden.” But Craig-Norton nevertheless stresses how the kinder often succeeded in overcoming financial, linguistic, and cultural obstacles by their own efforts, and she argues that they, in turn, sought to support their families and home communities: “The first act of agency for many child refugees was to implore helpers, hosts, and even complete strangers to assist their parents and siblings in fleeing the dangers of the Nazi state.”17
This paper expands upon Craig-Norton’s thesis of the kinder as “passive actors” through the prism of microhistory. Indeed, the microhistorical method is a remedy to serialized histories of events. Like Craig-Norton, I explore historian Tim Cole’s notion of “exceptional ‘nobodies’” by inspecting the individual, unexamined case of Norbert Müller to see anew broader themes in the history of the Kindertransport.18 But whereas Craig-Norton’s engagement with Cole largely stops with analysis of historical subjects who had been written out of their own stories, I aim to demonstrate the broader theoretical significance of Cole by focusing my study on a singular person in relation to his broader historical context. As Cole writes, “Micro history not only writes the subaltern into the historical narrative, but also seeks to reveal complexity, and point to power lying not only at the centre.”19 Not only can microhistory simply lead to exciting, new possibilities in historical writing, it also directly resolves several issues present in Kindertransport studies. Craig-Norton, for example, writes that the kinder’s experience has “in the main…only been accessible through testimony and memoir.”20 She discusses her reliance upon oral histories and ego-documentation, citing several issues including contradictions in memory reconstruction, problems of intersubjectivity between the interviewer and interviewee, and “teleological risks in the selective use of testimony to advance any argument.”21 In this paper, I avoid the ethical dilemma of over-trusting memory or the “moral paralysis” that any historian like Craig-Norton may experience as a memory critic of traumatic experience by telling Norbert’s story primarily through surviving, period documents.22 Moreover, whereas she focuses almost entirely on Polish kinder and the Polish Jewish Refugee Fund, I explore the story of a German Jew.
Given the scarcity of Kindertransport-related primary source materials, this paper’s methodological focus on the Müller family’s surviving documents presents an exciting, new lens by which to rediscover the kinder’s experience.23 By investigating how Norbert Müller (later Norman Miller) made sense of his social, economic, and familial identifications as a teenage refugee in a foreign community, I argue that the prevailing salvific narrative of the Kindertransport understates the active role that the kinder themselves played in their own survival—and even that of their families and friends.24 Indeed, Norman did not merely seek the support of others to help with his family’s plight; rather, he himself embraced the responsibility of making emigration a viable option for them. Finally, the Müllers’ story reveals how kinder and their family members could continue to have a meaningful impact on one another’s lives, even from afar and under difficult circumstances.
II. Norman the Dreamer: Hope in the Kindertransport and Interwar Immigration
Norman Miller began to tell his story of the Kindertransport when he decided to write to his family from England. He sent a card to his parents Sebald and Laura, his sister Susanne, and his maternal grandmother Clara Jüngster, confirming his arrival to London on August 30, 1939.25 This card marked the beginning of an epistolary exchange between Norman and his family that would last irregularly for eighteen months.26 Extended family and friends facilitated the passage of letters between Norman and his family—with Laura’s uncle Moritz Jacobs, who lived in Brussels, Belgium, being the primary intermediary.27 This arrangement proved to be consistent and effective for eight months, as Norman’s parents indicate in several instances a ten-day delay between the dating of a letter and when they received it.28 When Germany invaded Belgium in May of 1940, however, the Müllers diverted their letters through Sweden by way of Norman’s cousin Meinhold, but it appears that only two of these letters reached Norman.29 In November of 1941, the Gestapo deported Sebald, Laura, Susanne, and Clara to Riga, Latvia, where they were later killed in a mass execution on March 26, 1942, after contracting typhus.30 By consequence of their deportation and horrific deaths, the letters Norman had sent to his family did not survive the Holocaust. As such, Norman’s experience of the Kindertransport survives today almost entirely in his family’s words. While this one-sided exchange poses obvious historiographical challenges, I argue that the exercise of “finding Norman” through his family’s words presents a unique opportunity to reconsider Norman’s various group identifications—his many selves—and how they persisted despite his immigration to England via the Kindertransport.
Bifurcated scholarly accounts of the Kindertransport that claim the initiative was either an unmitigated failure or an incontrovertible success both fail to measure up to the evidence present in the Miller Papers.31 Regarding the former, what remains largely unexplored is the belief shared by the kinder, their families, and the British public that the Kindertransport was to be a temporary solution to the mounting crisis in Nazi Germany. Sebald and Laura, for instance, were optimistic that they would soon follow their son out of Germany:
We do hope that all of us see each other again soon and are happily united once more. In advance of this impending occasion, I am sending you, dearest son, my innermost good wishes. I don’t think I need to reassure you that everything we do for you and encourage you to do is in your best interests and that you are constantly in our thoughts. So that you also think of your loved ones, we personally enclose ourselves [in a photograph].32
To his parents, Norman was merely a forerunner: part of their decision to send him to England was predicated on their own intention to emigrate. Notably, Sebald had requested and received the quota number 18,930 for immigration to the United States from the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart a year earlier on August 31, 1938.33 He revisited the U.S. Consulate following Norman’s departure for a status update on the family’s visa applications: “We’ll have to wait for our quota number to be called,” he told Norman.34 Clara, too, shared in this initial optimism: “We hope for the best, [Norman,] and for our reunion.”35 As for Kindertransport organizers and caretakers, as well as the general public in Britain, while they did not necessarily see the initiative as a stepping stone to further immigration, they did, at the very least, share the goal of reuniting families, even if it was in the families’ countries of origin. As historian Emily Baughan writes, “In Britain, where adoption did not exist as a legal category until 1926, humanitarians raising foreign children imagined themselves as godparents or foster parents.”36 Adoption and assimilation were never meant to be long-term solutions.
Importantly, Sebald and Laura did not view their son’s temporary participation in the Kindertransport neutrally; instead, their decision reflected a widespread, operative desire shared by Norman and other German Jews in their community to pursue such emigration opportunities. For example, Lou Höchster and his family, who were friends of the Müllers, had initially invited Norman to travel with them to England where they sought transit to the United States.37 The biographical note to the Miller Papers emphasizes that “Norbert [sic] agreed” to this plan, and that Sebald accompanied him to Würzburg only after his son had consented to immigrate to England.38 Of course, Norman did not leave for England with the Höchsters, but he nevertheless succeeded in emigrating out of Cologne, garnering the interest of his home community: “You have become a famous person here,” Sebald wrote. “As soon as I got back home, the visits increased. Everyone wanted to know how we managed it.”39 For those left behind, Norman’s sudden departure brought hope to their own aspirations to leave Germany. At least initially, Norman’s letters served an important symbolic role in demonstrating how such hopes and dreams could be realized. “You just can’t imagine how delighted we are receiving your reports. You never witnessed such joy while you were here,” Sebald wrote. “News from one’s son in a distant place uplifts the mood and relaxes the mind.”40
While the United Kingdom’s declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939 stymied the inflow of kinder to England, German Jewry continued to pursue alternative means of immigration. Zionist youth group membership had ballooned prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, and “great effort was made to smuggle children outside of Germany to locations considered safer.”41 Many Jewish children including Norman’s friends and sister partook in Hachschara, a Zionist program oriented at teaching kinder agricultural skills on communal farms in preparation for immigration to British-mandated Palestine.42 In one letter, Sebald wrote to Norman, telling him that his friends would “be going to a farm near Berlin” for Hachschara.43 In another, he reported that the Feuchtwagners, a neighboring family, had sent their son Jakob to Palestine as he had not been able to immigrate with his sister Else, another Kindertransportee.44 Most notably, though, Sebald indicated in November of 1939 that he had registered Susanne for the same program.45 As Zionists initially focused on settling in the agriculturally rich lands of the West Bank, the acquisition of agricultural skills gave child candidates a better chance of joining a Zionist cohort.46 Participation in Hachschara became increasingly valuable after the British government issued the 1939 White Paper, which, according to historian Martin Bunton, “announced that Jewish immigration would be restricted to 75,000 persons over a five-year period and then end.”47 These new restrictions, coinciding with the end of the Kindertransport and the United States’ limited, small-scale immigration policies, increasingly curtailed opportunities for German Jews to immigrate.48
The Müllers nevertheless held out hope that they would immigrate to the United States, and their pending application remained the most important topic of discussion throughout their correspondence with Norman. There were, however, several complications that delayed (and eventually prevented) their departure from Germany—namely, Clara’s higher quota number, miscommunications with the Consulate and their sponsor in the United States, and an inability both to pay for transport and to ship their possessions out of Germany. In the first case, Clara had been living with Bertha and Justin Stahl—Laura’s sister and brother-in-law—before they immigrated to New York with their children Ludwig and Hilde.49 Clara had not received a quota number along with Sebald, Laura, Norman, and Susanne because the Müllers had believed she would be staying with Laura and Bertha’s brother Sid, who lived in France.50 “By the time dear mother came to us,” Sebald lamented, “the numbers in Stuttgart had reached about 35,000 which would take years to be called up. We just don’t know where we can find accommodations for her.”51 Indeed, her quota number was 57,329, so the Müllers felt obligated to make arrangements for her before they were to leave Nürnberg.52 It was not until May of 1940 that the Müllers resolved the problem by registering Clara for an “Old Age Home” in case she could not emigrate with them, but by that point, Nazi Germany had already invaded Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and France, making it more difficult for German Jews to flee the country.53
Uncertainty over Clara’s fate coincided with inconsistent messaging from both the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart and Herbert Sweed—Sebald’s first cousin and the Müllers’ visa sponsor who lived in California.54 By December of 1939, the Müllers had more clarity about their visa status, for Sebald informed Norman that “documents have to be produced for examination by holders of numbers up to 20,000. It’s possible that in 3-4 weeks it will be our turn.”55 A month later, however, Sebald told Norman that while the Consulate had received their documents and Herbert’s affidavit, the latter had “to be renewed” and Herbert had “to send [Norman] a separate affidavit” altogether because he lived in England.56 To make matters more complicated, the U.S. Consulate required that Sebald, who was an educator in Nürnberg, secure a teaching position at an American school in order to get the visa for immigration.57 Even as the Müllers “committed [themselves] to the Consulate” and remained optimistic that they would be cleared for immigration, they struggled to arrange the needed documents.58 By the spring of 1940, Sebald and Laura fully expected Norman, who had acquired much of the needed paperwork (i.e., birth certificates, passport photos, etc.), to arrive in New York ahead of them and Susanne.59 Critically, Sebald noted in March of 1940 that “as there are vacations during May and June [in Stuttgart], our turn won’t be before August.”60 These administrative delays at the Consulate explain, in part, why the Müllers were unable to leave Germany, and the one surviving letter dated from 1941 does not offer much clarity as to how, if at all, the Müllers’ candidacy for immigration advanced.
Norman was very involved in his family’s efforts to emigrate out of Germany. It is evident that he protested his parents’ suggestion that Susanne immigrate to Palestine by way of Hachschara, even if he moved there with her.61 Sebald affirmed that Susanne was pleased with Norman’s response, and the plan was abandoned in favor of keeping the remainder of the family together in preparation for immigration to the United States: “[Susanne] also was very happy to hear of your wish of having her close by again in the USA. ‘In der Ferne hat er sie gerne’ [Absence makes the heart grow fonder].”62 Moreover, Norman, like Moritz Jacobs, was indispensable to transmitting letters between Sebald and his associates. On several occasions, Sebald relied on Norman to correspond with Herbert, both to gather and to convey information about their visa. Norman also relayed his father’s inquiries to the Stahls and the Höchsters regarding job prospects and financial support for the journey out of Germany.63 Such requests were critical because the Müllers had committed to immigrating to the United States as it gave them the best chance “to keep…[their] possessions, especially [their] clothing and objects of daily use.”64 For instance, Sebald lamented, “Emigration [sic] to Israel is legal, but how the onward journey from there proceeds is unknown. The passengers are allowed to take only 15 to 20 kilos of luggage. That’s no future.”65 In all cases, Norman was proof that immigration was possible, and his involvement in his family’s affairs is one of the reasons why they had a chance at realizing their own dream of fleeing Germany.
The Kindertransport’s intended provisional character—as perceived by all parties involved—discredits scholarship that reduces the initiative to “a government-mandated act of family separation.”66 Such an assessment belies the active role that the kinder and their families played as willing participants; the Miller Papers clearly indicate the operative desire that German Jews had for immigration initiatives like the Kindertransport. Furthermore, this scholarly characterization is a sort of anachronistic reappraisal, for it emphasizes the unanticipated, eventual disintegration of several thousand family units due to the Holocaust while downplaying the initiative’s initial goals for reunification. Lastly, the Miller Papers present a case for evaluating the Kindertransport in light of the broader history of interwar immigration, particularly that of the United States. The Müllers’ dependence on the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart—which itself was informed by conservative immigration policies—as a means of escape goes a long way to explain the tragic, permanent outcome of family separation in Norman’s life. Verily, the Müllers were aware of these complicated circumstances and the risks involved: “We have to wait and see how the opinion of the States will develop,” Sebald wrote, “and whether the immigration…possibilities will be reduced…to get to the US [and] still exist by the time we are called up at the US Consulate.”67
III. Norman the Survivor: Experiencing Dispossession and Finding Support
When Norman arrived in London on August 30, 1939, he had few, if any, possessions. “We are very sorry that your things couldn’t accompany you on your trip,” commiserated his father. “Unfortunately, it’s impossible to send anything from here now. Can the Committee provide something?”68 The “Committee” that Sebald spoke of was Bloomsbury House, the managing organizational body that had facilitated Norman’s immigration to England.69 After a brief stay upon his arrival with a relative of Samuel and Esther Munk, an elderly couple who had moved into the Müllers’ apartment following Kristallnacht, Norman transitioned at the behest of Bloomsbury House to a hostel for refugee boys in the London suburb of Croyden.70 From there, he attended and lived at Townley Castle school for two weeks before being taken in by Rev. B. Fertelman on November 2, 1939.71 Rev. Fertelman, a Jewish rabbi, fostered several refugee boys in his London home, and Norman would remain there until January 7, 1942.72 While it is unclear whether Rev. Fertelman had a specific organizational affiliation, it is apparent from references Sebald and Laura made that Norman remained under the oversight—loosely defined—of Bloomsbury House for some time.73 The Miller Papers, however, suggest that even when Norman petitioned Bloomsbury House for material and financial aid, he typically got it from other sources.
Norman was lacking basic items such as clothing and toothpaste.74 His immediate family was unable to support him directly due to the Nazi state’s strict legal codes concerning the possession and transferal of Jewish property. The Reich Citizenship Law, which had been issued as part of the Nuremberg Laws on September 15, 1935, had stripped Jews of their citizenship status by delineating between them and other persons “of German or kindred blood.”75 This designation provided a legal basis for German officials to dispossess Jews of their property and to restrict what Jews could send out of the country.76 To make matters worse, the Müllers lacked the foreign currency needed to pay for international shipments.77 As such, Norman’s parents encouraged him to seek help elsewhere:
Don’t be shy. If you are cold, ask around for a used coat, a pair of wool gloves or similar things. For the time being, your usual vanity will have to be put aside. The main thing is that you are clothed warmly. In an emergency, turn to Uncle Fritz or to Aunt Dina. They live with [the] Probsteins, [at] Ashborn Avenue 35. Also approach Uncle Justin [Stahl] if you find yourself in any predicament. Your cousin Ludwig may have some outgrown clothing to hand on. I am sure that there will be time when miss your bike more than your cello. Am I right? You just have to endure doing without for a time. Years like these are learning years. We’ve all gone through them only to find more happiness later.78
Sebald’s note to Norman is important for two reasons: first, it establishes that the Müllers expected Bloomsbury House to provide for their son, and second, it reveals how they—and, by extension, Norman—had intimate knowledge of London’s cityscape and where to find certain relatives and family friends. Norman’s ability to connect with these people proved to be crucially important as he began to find his footing in his new environment.
The matter of acquiring clothing became an important “subplot,” so to say, in Norman’s correspondence with Sebald and Laura. By November of 1939, Norman still did not have adequate clothing, especially for the onsetting winter weather: “Your report certainly troubled us in certain respects,” Sebald wrote, “We fully believed that you are well provided for. I sincerely hope that things will now improve in every regard.”79 Frustrated by the failure of Bloomsbury House to fulfill Norman’s request, Sebald and Laura made two separate arrangements—one with Sebald’s niece Kathe Nussbaum, who lived in Holland, another with Justin and Bertha Stahl—to send Norman clothes.80 The first arrangement was not overly successful: while Norman received Kathe’s suitcase despite an address error, German customs officials had stricken most of the clothing, as well as the linens, bicycle, and cello from the list of shippable items.81 In the second case, Norman successfully acquired a parcel containing clothes from his first cousin Ludwig Stahl that were “in good condition,” although it took nearly four months for the luggage to arrive in England.82 Importantly, both anecdotes shed light on the shortcomings of Bloomsbury House to support Norman (and perhaps other kinder like him), but they also demonstrate how many individuals in Norman’s life made remarkable efforts to satisfy his stated needs. Compellingly, Sebald reported that a certain Otto Gutman—owner of the shipping company Transatlantica and stranger to the Müllers—had been the one to pay for the freight of Kathe’s suitcase to London.83
In the earliest months of Norman’s time in England, there were other means by which he supported himself when aid from Bloomsbury House was lacking. For one, he tried to cut down on mailing expenses per his father’s recommendation by using International Reply Coupons in place of stamps.84 International Reply Coupons, which the Universal Postal Union (UPU) had introduced in 1906, allowed a sender to mail a letter “along with the cost of a reply” to another UPU country. As such, International Reply Coupons did not require that a sender have currency or stamps from the country to which the letter was being sent.85 In other efforts to help Norman acquire some petty cash, Sebald suggested that he could arrange for Moritz Jacobs to enclose some Winterhilfsmarkes (Winter Relief Stamps) in his letters for Norman to sell in England.86 But what was by far Sebald and Laura’s most frequent recommendation for their son was that he seek “advice and assistance” from his contacts in England—namely, Aunt Dina and Uncle Fritz Hirsch, Mr. Rabenstein, and Edwin Jacobs.87 Norman definitely met with Dina and Fritz, Laura’s sister and brother-in-law, as well as Mr. Rabenstein, who worked as a butcher and was a friend of the Müllers and Jüngsters.88 Of particular note, Mr. Rabenstein appears to have helped Norman temporarily with his clothing issue before Kathe and Bertha’s packages arrived.89 In all cases, Norman’s parents encouraged their son to seek out these contacts, as well as write to the Stahls in the United States, if the need for money presented itself, insisting that such requests were not “begging.”90 Taken together, these details demonstrate how Norman and his parents were able to secure his material wellbeing despite the incompetence of Bloomsbury House.
IV. Norman the Provider: A Coming-of-Age Story
Striking is the claim that Norman played an active role in saving his family. Despite the Müllers’ deaths at the hands of the Gestapo, Norman’s efforts to secure his own economic standing in England were inextricably tied to an initial vision of providing for his family once they emigrated from Germany. As I have discussed, the Miller Papers substantiate the claim that the Müllers always intended to follow Norman and to reunite with him in the United States had they been granted permission by the U.S. Consulate to immigrate. But the Miller Papers also point to the centrality of material considerations and concerns in Norman’s correspondence with his parents. Considering the Müllers’ deteriorating material conditions born of mounting legal and social pressures under Nazi rule, an examination of Norman’s paid work and his self-conception as being someone in possession of things proves helpful in this line of argumentation. But, as I will also discuss, Norman’s efforts as a provider did not stop with the material.
Norman was a skilled welder. Apparently, he and his friend Walter Hecht had learned welding and other related crafting skills illegally from Mr. Wirsching, a disaffected communist who had owned a workshop in Nürnberg and had known Sebald.91 These welding skills would prove invaluable to Norman as he assimilated into British society. Responding to Norman’s first letter, Sebald, for his part, encouraged his son to seek out welding opportunities: “It would be nice if, with your talents, you could earn some money. Then you could acquire things for yourself. Welding surely will be well paid there.” Norman did not, however, secure a job until November of 1939, when he got a position at Woodgrange Metal Stamping Works.92 While a note from Susanne indicates that Norman’s post at Woodgrange was “not what [he had] trained for” with Mr. Wirsching, Norman was logging many hours, making money, and enjoying his job.93 Sebald, in a rare instance of rewriting verbatim a line from Norman’s letters, delighted in Norman’s poetic description of his work: “‘Blech raus, Blech hinein, Hebel rum, Hebel zurück’ [Sheet metal in, Sheet metal out, Lever up, Lever back].”94 Though Norman’s stint at Woodgrange was short-lived, he transitioned in January of 1940 to Triad Engineering Company, where he worked as welder in what he called “a maching shop.”95
For Sebald and Laura, parenting persisted in the epistolary medium, circling primarily around questions and concerns over Norman’s material wellbeing and employment. Sometimes their concern was quite literal and immediate to the letters at-hand: “My dear, it seems that [your] blue stationary has difficulty accepting commas,” Sebald once quipped. “Or does your frugality also extend to the use of ink?”96 In other instances, Sebald and Laura commented on Norman’s departure by noting how his absence affected material conditions back home: “Mama maintains that since you left home the fruit we keep in the home doesn't disappear so fast. The same goes for the chocolate.”97 But what was of chief concern for Norman’s parents was their son’s financial standing and his use of time. As I discussed in the previous section, their concern initially took the form of recommendations for how Norman could acquire money. But once Norman became salaried, their advice shifted to explicit suggestions for how he could avoid unnecessary expenditures and develop his skills as a laborer. In one letter, Sebald encouraged Norman not to “wear out [his] good things right away” and to “save them for later.”98 In another, Laura suggested that he “continue wearing [his] old things” at work and prioritize wearing the knickerbockers he received from Ludwig because “they are less popular” in the United States.99 Sebald admonished Norman against smoking cigarettes like he had because it was an expensive habit and bad for one’s health, and both parents warned their son about potential theft in his communal living arrangement.100
Responding to his parents’ concerns for his financial standing, Norman had begun to see himself as someone who possesses. An inflection point in the Miller Papers occurs when Norman appears to have announced to his parents that he had started to accrue savings beyond petty cash: “That you already put aside and save your small change,” declared Sebald, “deserves the highest praise.”101 Norman’s emergence as a self-sustaining individual coincided, importantly, with his parents’ growing concerns over their own material wellbeing. Even before Norman’s departure from Nürnberg, the Müllers had lost their rights as homeowners following the Nazi state’s 30 April 1939 decree, and they had been relocated to a new apartment designated for Jews without due compensation, bringing them under immense financial pressure.102 To make matters more challenging, Sebald indicated that he was paying the electricity bill for the entire building in which he lived.103 Furthermore, the Müllers, as previously mentioned, risked incurring further loss of property if they emigrated from Germany.104 But in order to leave in the first place, Sebald asserted that Norman would have had to “take out a large dollar loan” in foreign currency on his family’s behalf because there were no German ships sailing, rendering useless what little German currency the Müllers had left.105 It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, that Norman’s paid work features prominently in the Miller Papers. As the material conditions for Norman and his family trended in opposite directions, it became clear to him that he had to become a provider, not just a survivor.
To be a provider, Norman had to be forward-thinking. While his parents certainly encouraged him to continue to save his earnings from his apprenticeship at Triad Engineering Company, they also gave him guidance as to how he could make himself a more marketable job candidate for future employment in the United States. Of course, Sebald reminded his son to guard his health: “Just protect yourself against the dangers of welding,” he wrote after learning of Norman’s post at Triad. “The preservation of one’s health is most important at the beginning of one’s struggle for survival.”106 Indeed, these lines were not mere parenting formalities; rather, welding was very dangerous work. For example, Susanne informed Norman that his friend Walter had started to wear an eye patch in January of 1940 after “something entered his eye while in the [welding] workshop.”107 Norman would have likely taken this account seriously, for it appears that he had sought out “safety glasses” in advance of getting his welding job.108
Immediate concern over Norman’s physical wellbeing aside, the Müllers implored their son to make use of his spare time to acquire additional practical skills. Questions regarding how Norman spent his day and how he studied litter Sebald and Laura’s correspondence with him.109 In one letter dated from September of 1939, Sebald insisted that Norman “set [himself] a goal for [his] spare time [and] resolve to learn something definite with someone,” but in the same letter, Sebald backed his words by recounting how each of Norman’s family members were making similar efforts towards self-betterment back in Nürnberg. He noted that he and Susanne had “decided to be able to write a perfect shorthand by Christmas” and that she was also “learning to type with 10 fingers” on an old typewriter the Müllers owned. “Set yourself goals while you are young,” he concluded, “You’ll realize that, when in need, a person who has learned something or knows varied subjects will always be able to find opportunities to make money.”110 For Laura’s part, she elected to learn English along with Sebald and Susanne in order to be an effective service worker in the United States. In one humorous account, Sebald stated that Laura’s English translations were too literal, noting that she translated the German word handschuh—meaning glove—as “hand shoe.”111 But such lighthearted remarks were intended to motivate Norman to develop his own marketable skills beyond that of a welder.
To a certain extent, Norman appears to have heeded his parents’ call. In December of 1939, he reportedly received domestic work at Rev. Fertelman’s home, having been tasked to help with food preparation and to polish the floors with regularity. Addressing him jokingly as “the houseboy peeling onions,” Sebald, Laura, Susanne, and Clara all acknowledged and congratulated Norman on finding alternative means to make productive use of his time.112 The Miller Papers also suggest that Norman made a concerted effort to learn English early on, and while Kathe Nussbaum’s package had included few clothes, it contained many of Norman’s books from home.113 It becomes clear, too, that Norman’s parents had begun to take pride in their son’s concerted efforts to make money, to acquire new skills, and to learn. “As you are now learning some worthwhile things there, a good experience for you,” wrote Sebald, “you’ll be able to quickly enter a new occupation in the USA. This is very nice. You’ll be quite a bit ahead of your friends and turn out to be our wage earner.”114 For all his humor and sarcasm, Sebald’s line to his son that he would become the family’s “wage earner” is compelling, and it ought to be taken seriously. Even though Norman was not at the time able to support his family financially from England, his ability not only to provide for himself but also to be a breadwinner gave his family the realistic hope that they would “be able to rebuild again with [him] in a new country,” particularly as Norman might have been able to “switch over to a better intellectual professional career” in the United States.115
Norman’s ability to provide for others was not, however, limited to material considerations; instead, Norman was able to take on additional responsibilities as an advisor and intermediary that directly impacted the lives of his family and friends. For proof of concept, consider the following anecdote: Susanne wrote to Norman in December of 1939 with a request on behalf of Mrs. Lowenstein, a friend of the Müllers. Heinz, Mrs. Lowenstein’s son, lived in Glasgow, Scotland, and while it is unclear whether he was part of the Kindertransport, he had a similar living arrangement to Norman. Initially, Mrs. Lowenstein simply requested that Norman ask her son “to write to his parents a little more often as he had before.”116 Not only did Norman fulfill this request, but he also started to visit Heinz regularly.117 But to complicate matters, Mrs. Lowenstein informed Norman by way of Sebald that she had adopted Heinz but not told him about his birth history. Sebald noted that she feared “emigrating separately, Heinz will learn from documents that he is not really her birth child,” and that he would not write to his parents if he discovered the truth. As the matter was causing Mrs. Lowenstein a great deal of distress, she tasked Norman and Ludwig with finding out whether her son knew, and she even went so far as to encourage Norman “to destroy the enclosed letter to avoid it falling into the wrong hands.”118 While it is unclear in the Miller Papers whether Heinz knew about his birth history, it is evident that Norman tried to assist Mrs. Lowenstein. This anecdote and others like it demonstrate how the Kindertransport led to complex interpersonal crises to which kinder like Norman had to attend.
Taken collectively, these instances of Norman providing for other people tell the story of a teenaged boy who had to grow up ahead of his time. After being separated from Norman for only six months, Sebald reported that he and Laura “equally enjoyed hearing” from Dina Hirsch, who insisted that Norman had matured greatly in character and disposition.119 Without a doubt, Norman’s newfound maturity was born of the harrowing circumstances he endured as a Kindertransportee, but significantly he did not shrink under these circumstances, rediscovering instead his role as a family and community member in a new society and economy. For at least the eighteen months that Norman remained in correspondence with his family, he did not waver in his commitment to serve them. For two final examples, Norman continued to provide information to the Höchsters from Sebald—who had taken on the responsibility of organizing and forwarding what he could of the Höchsters’ remaining possessions in Germany—and on a more intimate note, Susanne often sought and received advice from her brother regarding her own studies and job prospects.120 In any case, Norman had grown to look beyond himself.
The final letter Norman Miller received from his family arrived in the spring of 1941 while he was still living with Rev. Fertelman. In November of the previous year, he had acquired a new job at E.H. Thompson & Son Scientific Instrument Makers, where he worked until July of 1944.121 At that point, Norman enlisted as an infantryman with the 6th Battalion, 158th Brigade, 53rd Division of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the British Army, and he was deployed to Belgium. During and after the Second World War, Norman served in intelligence due to his fluency in German. Notably, it was not until 1946 that Norman learned of his family members’ deaths. In 1947, he naturalized as a British citizen, but he nonetheless immigrated to the United States in 1949 by of way of Toronto, Canada. For two years, he lived with the Stahls in New York before marrying Ingeborg Sommer, who had immigrated to the United States in 1937 and with whom Norman had two sons. Norman spent the remainder of his career in the production of plastic goods, and he naturalized as an American citizen in 1955. 122
Whether in Great Britain or the United States, Norman was not by conventional standards a “man of consequence,” and he was able to assimilate remarkably well into his adoptive home. As previously mentioned, he anglicized his name prior to enlisting in the British military, and he became fluent in English.123 In fact, Sebald quipped to Norman in one of the last surviving letters that “if you [son] are making such good progress in foreign languages, you are backsliding in German spelling.”124 Whereas previous Kindertransport studies might have interpreted such details as evidence of how kinder like Norman were passive, helpless actors in the larger tide of child cultural assimilation, I argue that these details can be read differently as reflecting the operative desires and hopes of kinder to achieve a future for themselves, their families, and their friends. What the one-sided correspondence of the Miller Papers clarifies for the historian is precisely what was valued between Norman and his family. The practical limitations of the epistolary medium made that the case. As such, what rises to the surface is a complex image of a boy who was simultaneously empowered and hindered in his efforts to secure that desired future for his family. To conclude, consider once more the words of a father trying to encourage his distant son:
Your letters always bring sunshine into our home and the last one gave us special pleasure chiefly as it contained no complaint and gave us heartfelt joy to gather from your lines that you seem, correctly, to understand the seriousness of our times and, in spite of “not everything going according to one’s wishes,” one must yield to those things that turn out to be unalterable. That you are able to accept everything as a matter of course and not complain about the things that are lacking gives me, as a pedagogue, special pleasure and proves to me that a foreign society and our fate have made you somewhat more mature. Being forced to help yourself on many occasions is a good lesson for the future.”125
Primary Source Bibliography
Biographical note attached to Norman A. Miller Family Papers, 1937-2015. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016. Accession Number: 2016.203.1. Date of last access: January 14, 2022. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn537182.
Miller, Norman A., ed. Norman A. Miller Family Papers, 1937-2015. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016. Accession Number: 2016.203.1. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn537182.
Reich Citizenship Law. German Reich (September 15, 1935). In “The Nuremberg Laws: The Reich Citizenship Law,” Jewish Virtual Library: A Project of Aice. Date of last access: January 14, 2022. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-reich-citizenship-law.
Presland, John. A Great Adventure: The Story of the Refugee Children’s Movement. London: Bloomsbury House, 1944.
Secondary Source Bibliography
Baughan, Emily. “International Adoption and Anglo-American Internationalism, c. 1918-1925,” Past and Present 239 (2018): 181-217.
Bunton, Martin. The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Craig-Norton, Jennifer. The Kindertransport: Contesting Memory. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019.
Cole, Tim. Traces of the Holocaust: Journeying in and out of the Ghettos. London: Continuum, 2011.
Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
Kreutzmüller, Christoph, and Jonathan R. Zatlin. Dispossession: Plundering German Jewry, 1933-1953. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2020.
Presland, John. A Great Adventure: The Story of the Refugee Children’s Movement. London: Bloomsbury House, 1944.
Toynbee, Polly. “The UK’s Stance on the Refugee Crisis Shames Us All,” Guardian, September 3, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/03/david-cameron-sham....
I would like to acknowledge Alain St. Pierre’s contributions to my research efforts. He helped me by finding some of the sources that contributed to this paper—mostly notably a reliable translation of the Reich Citizenship Law. I would also like to acknowledge Yair Mintzker, for by participating in the “Holocaust of Things” research project that he organized during the summer of 2021, I discovered the Norman A. Miller Family Papers, 1937-2015. Finally, I would like to acknowledge Anthony Grafton. First, he introduced me to the subdiscipline of microhistory, for it was in his course “History: An Introduction to the Discipline” that I first encountered Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms—the paradigmatic work of microhistory. Second, it was during his seminar on microhistory that I first encountered the John Donne quote I use at the beginning of the paper.