In 1933, SS soldiers were guarding the entrances of her father’s shop and her Uncle’s shop across the road; Gerti was only seven at the time ran with her cousin Freddie between each shop to see what all the fuss was about. What was happening? This was the first event under the Hitler regime that meant the end of a secure life for Gertrud Stern. Her family lived in the small village of Montabaur along with the extended Stern family of which there were about thirty families in this small community.
Gertrud’s father - Albert Stern ran a hard-ware and building material business from the ground floor of their home. The building yard with timber and glass was at the rear of the house. That same year her widowed maternal Grandmother came to live with the family and had a flat on the first floor. Gertrud, her parents and younger brother lived on the second floor, while the family’s maids and the staff who worked in the shop occupied the attic.
The family weren’t Orthodox, but did observe Judaic festivities and rituals. They kept a kosher household (with Gerti’s grandmother being more strict in this sense than her own mother- Yohanna), and the children had Hebrew lessons at school once a week. A Rabbi from the outer region came once a month to visit families in Montabaur and test their Hebrew knowledge. Albert Stern was a prominent figure in the community belonging to several associations and clubs, and regularly attending Synagogue. He had fought in the First World War and remained a member of the Returned Servicemen’s Association.
As a child Gerti felt safe, and loved. She enjoyed growing up with four other cousins close in age. Three of them all born in the same year – 1925, which meant that they all started primary school together. Whilst the village of Montabaur was predominantly a Catholic community – there was recognition of other religious instruction and this was considered the norm.
By the time she was 8yrs of age, Gertrud’s parents did explain to her that there was a growing anti-Jewish “feeling”. With hindsight Gertrud recalls that she had no reason to feel afraid because she had had such a secure family and community life. At school however, some of the youth were joining the Hitler youth movement, teachers arrived at school in Nazi uniform, there were speeches on the radio, regular meetings with anthems to sing and much dancing. At home the adults used a code name when referring to Hitler – calling him Aaron Hilsh. In the neighbourhood the family felt their home was being watched day and night from neighbours who were members of the National Socialist Party or who were Nazis.
By the time Gertrud was 10 yrs of age she had to go to secondary school. She was separated from her dearest cousin Freddie who stayed on at a regular German school, whist Gerti’s parents sent her to a Catholic convent for girls. Gerti tried in vain not to let the intensifying situation affect her studies, as she was ambitious and did not want to disappoint her parents. But she also didn’t socialise with peers of her age anymore and instead felt she had to be on guard at all times. Gerti became increasingly unhappy. Then aged 11 ½ yrs she went to stay with an Uncle and Aunt in England for 2 ½ years until 1939 when her parents were able to emigrate. But again feeling unsettled – now in a big city, living in Hampstead –London; her Uncle and Aunt being a lot stricter than her parents she felt home sick for her family and friends. Gerti did in fact return home to Germany for the school holidays and was able to travel by train on a child’s passport. Her last holiday was in 1938 when she accompanied her parents to Berlin where they made inquiries about leaving Germany.
While Gertrud had been in the UK her father had been sent to a concentration camp. He was able to leave on condition he left the country, which he did and came to England, leaving the others behind.
It was August 1939 when Gertrude and her family did immigrate to New Zealand. Gerti and her Father left England on the Rangitane Ship for NZ. A friend who had already moved there negotiated a permit for the whole family – at a cost of £2,000. Her brother and mother left from Holland by ship to England, then Indonesia where they were held in custody while war broke out, until a ship took them to Australia and onto NZ. Other relatives managed to travel to the USA, including cousin Freddie.
The Sterns moved to the small town of Opotiki in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, Gerturd was 14yrs old. With hindsight Gertrud thought this wasn’t the best move for a Jewish family as there were no other Jewish or German speaking people living there. But from a human point of view it was wonderful. Albert started up his own business once more and the children were able to continue with their education. The family did not have car and Gertrud can remember walking to the river where they went swimming and being watched through binoculars by the local policeman. “He thought perhaps we were signalling U-Boats.”
Her Father was classified as an enemy alien and Gertrud herself aged 16yrs had to appear before the Alien Board which came to Opotiki. “They thought they were very clever, and they said to me “What did your parents tell you to tell us?” and I said “The truth.”
By 1944 Gertrude was able to attend teachers training college in Auckland. Her Father wrote to Rabbi Astor in Auckland asking for some help with accommodation for Gerti. She then went to board with the Blumenfeld family. Gertrud married Konrad Blumenfeld in 1946. They had three daughters Judith, Nina and Irene.
Gertrud was interviewed by the Jewish Oral History group in 1995, this podcast is sourced from that interview.
Image header (above:) Gertrude Blumenfeld. Photography Keren Cook - Reproduced with permission by the Blumenfeld family © JoM