BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

Paul Elwell's Story - Part 1 - The Making of an Alien

by Derek Elwell

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Civilian Internment

Contributed by 
Derek Elwell
People in story: 
Charles Paul Elwell, Dr Ernst Eichwald, Edith Adele Eichwald, John Richard Elwell, Barbara Jenny Thomas (nee Eichwald), Albert Elwell-Sutton, Ralph Elwell-Sutton
Location of story: 
Amsterdam (Netherlands), Kronberg-im-Taunus (Germany), London
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 June 2005

Paul at around 6 - from a study for a larger portrait by Kronberg artist Schonberger which was lost or destroyed during Kristallnacht


The account which follows this introductory section is part of an essay written in 1985, apparently largely from memory, for an external Economic History course at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, by my father, Charles Paul Elwell (“Paul”). Although thought to have been lost, the essay was found among some papers by my sister, Vanessa Elwell-Gavins, in January 2005. Later in 1985, our father suffered the brain haemorrhage that robbed him of his second attempt to obtain a degree, and incapacitated him for the remaining nineteen years of his life. He passed away on 17th November 2004, never having regained his faculties. However, for the reader to understand the events recounted in the first person essay (i.e. the last three sections of this posting), it is necessary to outline in the third person my father’s life leading up to the outbreak of World War II, hence this introduction.
Paul’s father, Dr Ernst Eichwald, born in 1878, was an industrial chemist and patent adviser from Westphalia, of Jewish background but non-practising. Dr Eichwald worked in Selby, Yorkshire, for several years prior to World War I. While there, in 1911 he married Edith Adele Sussmann, from near Manchester, born in 1885 and altogether English, but with German antecedents, also of Jewish background, who had moved to England in the aftermath of the failed democratic revolutions of 1848. That said, she was very much a child of the Church of England. Paul's older brother Richard was thus born in England in 1912. On the outbreak of that war, Dr Eichwald, an Imperial Reserve officer, returned to Germany to answer the call of duty. Her eldest brother’s Dutch brother-in-law helped Edith to follow with the infant Richard, thus putting immediate family loyalty ahead of patriotism, although it resulted in her becoming estranged for many years from many of her otherwise English relatives. My father’s sister Barbara was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1918.
Some time after the war Edith, by now expecting my father, returned to England to visit those of her relations who were prepared to forgive her. With the birth pending, she was begged to stay, but decided to return to Germany and her husband and children, in hindsight not the best decision, as she had only reached Amsterdam when it became apparent that she should go no further. Again with the emergency assistance of the Dutch brother-in-law it happened that my father entered the world there on 11th March 1920, to be named Carel Paul Erwin Eichwald, “Carel” being the Dutch rescuer’s name.

Following the armistice and German demobilisation, Dr Eichwald found employment in Frankfurt-am-Main with the chemical firm Degussa, and despite chaotic economic conditions, with access to Sterling and Dutch guilders the family had been able to purchase a spacious house, Villa Barbara, on extensive grounds in the Schönberg quarter of Kronberg-im-Taunus, in the hills north-west of Frankfurt. Paul considered his childhood there idyllic, but all was to start changing with Hitler’s accession to the German Chancellorship in early 1933, and to the presidency on the death of Hindenburg the following year, although there was some protection as a result of Dr Eichwald’s distinguished war service (mainly on the Russian front, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class) and his wife’s perceived Englishness. The family being essentially bilingual, Paul too pretended to be English when necessary, although this could not be applied in local and school surroundings, where the family was well-known. His confirmation classes were ultimately switched from Kronberg’s Lutheran church, by then becoming politicised, to the Anglican church in Frankfurt.
Richard, having been born in England, had the option to take up British citizenship on turning 21, and duly did so, abandoning his German-based medical studies and going to London to resume them, with due credit for units already passed. The Eichwalds had for some years been taking in paying guests from England. With a view to the future they arranged for such funds to be left in British bank accounts rather than paid direct, supplemented by a legacy which Edith was able to transfer for the use of the children when the time came. Barbara went to finish her schooling at Eastbourne, in return for hospitality given to the headmistress’s sister, while it was determined that by 1936 Paul too would be of an age to follow once he finished high school, then take matriculation and enter university. He was entrusted to the care of Edith’s second-youngest brother Albert and his good-natured Australian-born wife Violet, née Elwell. On marriage, Albert had double-barrelled and anglicised his family name to Elwell-Sutton. He served as a Royal Navy officer in World War I, seeing action at Jutland, but had a reputation for a temper (which the Navy was supposed to curb!) and of being an unrepentant martinet, so had been retired early with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander as a result of quarrels with equals and superiors and near-mutiny by subordinates. He had supposedly mellowed somewhat by the late ’30s, but even so life with the Elwell-Suttons wasn’t entirely smooth, although Paul was assisted by being taken under the wing of his cousin Ralph, Albert and Violet’s younger son, six years his senior and at that time a journalist, who shielded him and provided some diversion from the domestic scene.

A few months after his departure for England, Paul had a brief taste of the horrors that were to beset most of Europe in the following years. Returning to Germany at the end of 1936 for a planned Christmas reunion with his parents, his train was boarded at Aachen for passport inspection by both border police and plain-clothes officers of the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei — Secret State Police). The latter examined all passports more intently than the border police, then ordered my father off the train, along with two equally scared girls, fellow-passengers, accusing them of trying to get in illegally: “We don’t want you Jewish swine back here! Get back where you belong!!” In the panic, Paul left his camera on the train. Not having enough money to get back further than Ostende, they decided before being escorted to the next train out of Germany, and at the suggestion of a sympathetic railway official, to approach the German consul in Liège, just back across the Belgian border. The consul offered to negotiate with his Foreign Ministry for permission to continue, or to advance sufficient for a return to England, as well as to call their parents; he also explained that German Jews living abroad were now required to have their passports stamped with a “J” (for Jude, or Jew), and to have the name Israel or Sarah added to the given names. By the next morning the consul had obtained permission for their journeys to continue, on condition that they report to their local police within 24 hours of arrival, and he provided letters to the Aachen authorities to confirm this. Once past Aachen, Paul duly reported to the Kronberg police, where there was also a Gestapo officer to whom the arrangements had obviously been relayed, and was told that if he didn’t leave for England when he was supposed to, or ever had the effrontery to return, it would be straight to the KZ (concentration camp) for him!
After his return to England, life proceeded more or less as intended: Paul qualified for matriculation and commenced studies in late 1937 at University College, London, while war clouds slowly gathered. Dr Eichwald’s employment with Degussa continued unhindered until November 1938, when following the assassination by a Polish Jew of a counsellor at the German embassy in Paris, by coincidence a member of an old Kronberg family, the Nazis set out in earnest to murder Jews, expropriate Jewish property and suspend such liberties as may still have been left to those of Jewish “blood” (practice was irrelevant!). On what became Reichskristallnacht, and forewarned by friends of the approach from Frankfurt of lorry-loads of thugs, Paul's parents fled Villa Barbara, and were sheltered by neighbours. The house was ransacked, and it was only with difficulty that the perpetrators were dissuaded by local police and firemen from burning it down. Only a few remaining bits and pieces were later collected, packed and stored.

The British consulate in Frankfurt refused assistance, on the grounds that as provided by English law at the time, Edith had lost her nationality when marrying a foreigner, and so a precedent should not be set. Four months later, however, the senior Eichwalds, with further assistance and shelter from colleagues and friends, were able to reach England, almost penniless and with little more than the clothes they stood up in. Dr Eichwald, at 61, was considered too old for regular work, but survived on sporadic commissions from contacts built up over the years. They moved from one friend to another, one flat to another. Ultimately he found full-time work despite his age; this continued until retirement at 77, by which time they had been able to acquire a “semi” at Carshalton, Surrey, and to reassemble the necessities, plus the occasional luxuries. My father tells that by the time he returned from war service, his mother’s peculiar flair for creating a comfortable home atmosphere had enabled her to create a silk purse from a sow’s ear! It must be recorded too that Degussa continued to pay Dr Eichwald’s salary into a secret bank account right through the war, and as a pension until his death in 1970 and Edith’s in 1973; although this would not be known for many years after their flight from Germany, it ensured a degree of comfort once hostilities were over.
The narrative of the following three sections is the first-hand account almost exactly as told by my father, the only exceptions being where his own footnotes, if relevant, have been integrated into the text, a very few short editorial interpolations on my part (duly marked as such) where some sort of explanation appears in order, and in one instance, at the end of the "War and Internment" section, where subsequent research in the course of looking for ship histories and pictures has introduced what I consider to be a necessary correction into what he wrote.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

Civilian Internment Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy