Monday, 20 October 2014

Memoir of a Stateless Person: Helmut Hassmann

Memoir of a Stateless Person: Helmut Hassmann

About 25 years ago, when “citizenship studies” was just beginning as an academic discipline, a colleague from the University of Toronto asked me if I knew that there were people in the world who were stateless. I replied that I did, as my father had been stateless for over 30 years. Now I have just co-edited a book with my colleague at Wilfrid Laurier University, Margaret Walton-Roberts, called The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept; it will be published soon by University of Pennsylvania Press. There’s a section on statelessness in it.

Most people who study statelessness refer to Hannah Arendt’s discussion of it in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (pages 276-281). Arendt herself was a German Jew rendered stateless by the Nazis, and German Jews were one of the groups she was referring to in her discussion.

My father was a “half-Jew” from Germany, but he had been stateless all his life, for reasons that he reveals below.  This is a short memoir that he either wrote or dictated after he arrived in Switzerland in early 1939.  It describes the odyssey of one stateless man seeking refuge from the Nazis.  I used this memoir in my introduction to The Human Right to Citizenship because of its poignant plea for human rights, a plea I discovered only some years after my father’s death, despite my own lifetime of writing about human rights. My father wrote “you’re so utterly powerless, so impotent… What ever happened to human rights? Is there such a thing anymore? Is it not a mockery of all humanity, when, today, millions are forced to wander about aimlessly, at the behest of a megalomaniacal criminal!? [Hitler] When every country spits them out again like outcasts....”

In my last blog, (, posted October 3, 2014, I wrote about our life in Canada after we arrived here from Britain in 1951. My father arrived in Britain two weeks before World War II, thanks to the assistance of the Swiss Quaker (Sister Annie Pfugler) who took him in when he arrived in Zurich, and some English Quakers named Backhouse. In 1940 the British interned him as an enemy alien for six months on the Isle of Mann, and then sent him to Canada for another year or so of internment. (You can read about the internment in Canada of Jewish and non-Jewish refugees from Axis countries in Eric Koch, Deemed Suspect, Toronto, Methuen, 1980). Then my father returned to Britain and joined the British army, married my mother, and became a British citizen in 1947.  He held on to his British passport the rest of his life, even when he became Canadian.

 Here is the memoir. Note my father had absorbed the Nazi racist term “Aryan.”

 Michael Howard (born Helmut Hassmann):

account of his escape from Germany, apparently written or transcribed in Switzerland, 1939

Translated by Dr. Mathias Guenther, February 2009

“I was born in 1913, son to a family physician. My father succumbed to pneumonia in 1918, which he had contracted on the battle field. He was Jewish; my mother is Aryan.

I spent four years at primary school and the following six years I attended secondary school [Gymnasium]. In 1930 I matriculated, having placed first among the graduating students. I left school in order to begin an apprenticeship at an oil manufacturing firm in Leipzig. After a two-year training period the last half -year was credited to me and I was appointed by the same firm to the post of Spanish correspondent. I was dismissed from my position in 1933, due to the upheavals that had in the meanwhile broken out in Germany. However, shortly thereafter I was able to obtain a position at the Leipzig sales office of  I. G. paints industry, which was still politically unconnected at the time. I worked there for five years, as a technical sales correspondent.

 However, the Nazi industrial cell [? Betriebszelle?] had in the meanwhile gathered information about myself and found out that I am of non-Aryan descent, something my well-intentioned boss had not revealed.  This, around 1936, was the beginning of the action against myself, which, between 1937 and 1938, had come to such a point that I decided “voluntarily” to quit my position.  All the more so, as my employers were in absolutely no position to offer me protection, as they would then be in danger of themselves being politically suspect.

 Being stateless–my grandfather was Russian, as was my father, even though his country of birth was Germany–I was unable to obtain any residence or work permit abroad. I thus went to Italy, as a visitor, in order to seek to obtain a residence permit in that country for a protracted length of time. However, on October 4th, 1938, I was verbally informed by the vice-prefect of Milan that, unless I had departed Italy by October 9th, I would be escorted to the German border by two carabinieri.  I then spent another two months in Italy illegally and during that time I sought to obtain immigration permits from all of the consulates. However, because of my stateless status the answer everywhere was negative; alternatively, the landing fees in the states overseas were so steep as to be unaffordable. At that time I had about 1000 lire, which evaporated throughout my subsequent wanderings. After some well-meant advice from elderly Italian friends, and unable to find any lodging in Milan because of my illegal status, on December 8th I left for Yugoslavia. After walking for eight hours I got to the Yugoslav border, in a heavy snow squall. There I was picked up; however, I was treated with great kindness and was passed along, from one place to another, over a distance of about 12 kilometres. Throughout I was accompanied by a soldier, carrying a loaded and cocked rifle.  This pleasant company was to stay at my side until February 12th. At the fifth station I eventually was made to stay, for two days. While I was not locked up and was fed very well, I was not allowed to take one step into the open air.  The next thing I was told: back to Italy!  Back we went for five hours, in silence, beside the soldier with rifle and mounted bayonet. All this because I am stateless. Fortunately my guide had the day previous received three Veramon-powders [a painkiller?] from me, [end of page 1] for his intense tooth ache. He thus stopped right at the border and said: “ Fujine - frontiera-Italia-Rakek.”, that is to say, “Run back to Italy and then take the train back again to Rakek” (Yugoslavia).  I thus walked for about 100 metres in a straight direction and then turned around again right back to Yugoslavia, skirting the customs building. I then hiked for five hours, up the highest heights of the Yugoslavian frontier mountains, heading inland. Snow had freshly fallen and was about 60 cm high; I wore dress shoes and got one foot bath after another. I couldn’t walk along any roads as I had a hellish fear of being nabbed once again. However, even the strongest will fails in the face of exhaustion and excessive exertion and in the end I was so spent that I just didn’t care about anything anymore. In order to avoid drawing attention to myself I had already sacrificed my small suitcase and briefcase containing much nice underwear and I now walked straight into the next larger village, along the middle of the main road. A policeman who walked my way didn’t glance at me once, for which I was very grateful to him. To my dismay the train station to which I wanted to go was in exactly the opposite direction that I had walked. I thus had to walk back 12 kilometres; I was very dejected and my legs failed me.  Coincidentally, a peasant with horse and wagon appears behind me just at that moment, who understands a bit of Italian. I ask him if he would take me along. Yes, with pleasure; I climb up the box beside him, shivering and cold. We drive for about 20 minutes when I notice with a start that we are heading straight for the customs house, from which I had been sent off this morning. .... I promise my peasant 50 dinar if he can get me by the place without being detected. He is unflappable: “We’ll get by alright.” And he is right! Nobody come from the building, no guard comes our way. I heave a sigh of relief. We finally get to the stop from which the bus is supposed to take me to the next larger village or town with a train connection. However, the bus won’t arrive for another two hours. Eventually I am taken by bus to S. At every stop in between five policemen–however, everything is in order. By train I drive to Maribor, where a friend of an Italian acquaintance of mine, a Slovene, would be setting things in order for me.  Unfortunately, he was too much of a coward to do even the barest minimum for me.

 After 2 days I drive to Belgrade. I was to rue my notion that I might be able to go underground more easily in this large city. I was seized after no more than five days of freedom. “So, you emigrated without a visa! What are you doing here anyway?” “My passport has been taken from me.” “Unless you take a ticket to the border and are away from here by 5 ‘o’clock you will be arrested.” In the course of my search for a room in Belgrade I had met a Russian woman, who had fled Russia back at the time of the Russian revolution. She showed much sympathy for my situation. “Well, you state that you have no money to drive back; the least the state can do is pay for your return journey”, was her opinion. I go back to the office and inform the bureaucrat working there, a most unlikable person with a malicious expression. A lengthy report is taken, where are you from? Why? Aha, half-Jew etc.  “Well, for the time being you’ll have to stay here, for a couple of days. Of course, you will get room and board.” The room was—a prison cell, 1.5 x 3 m.  The board consisted of water and a kg. of bread per day. Christmas passed, and then the new year; early at 7 o’clock a walk, always in a circle, a horde of ragged, coarse guards, who were generous with their face slapping and kicking. Reading forbidden, newspapers forbidden. I didn’t understand any Serbian. The light was kept on all night long, there were no mattresses for sleeping but only the hard wooden floor, for 4 weeks.  For no other reason but because you are stateless and do not have any right to live and work anywhere, because you are “non-Aryan” and regarded as a second-class human being. The only admirable thing was companionship. Nowhere is there better companionship than in prison. There were men there, genuine men, who wasted away in prison for their convictions and who were tortured. Yes, tortured! Hit on the soles of their bare feet, with ox reams braided with wire, 50, 100 times or more! I saw a man, 55 years of age, who had been denounced as Macedonian: at 5 o’clock in the evening he was summoned for “questioning”; he returned at 8 o’clock, led by two policemen, as he was no longer able to walk on his own. He had to endure the caning of the soles of his feet on the grounds merely of a suspicion: to watch all of this was worse than anything else... I had stomach cramps for 3 days; you could relieve yourself only during the walking hours. Otherwise there was a bucket; no one, of course, wanted to use it, in consideration of his comrades. Later on we shared one large room with 15 political prisoners. I had been brought in on December 17th; at midnight on January 14th a gendarme took me to the Italian border. The darkness was pitch black and rain was streaming down. Suddenly, a flashlight flares. “Alti le mani!”  (Hands up!) I look into the barrel of a revolver and am in the hands of the Italians.

At times the border guards can be simply touching. I immediately started to speak Italian, was given a glass of wine, a cup of espresso, and was allowed before anything else to lie down for a sleep. After lying down for perhaps 15 minutes, I notice how the Italian, the same one who had confronted me with his revolver, placed a warm fur coat over my thin blanket. However, my luck was to last for only one day; the day following I found myself in Abbazzia, a nice resort town, in prison.  No sign anywhere of the ocean, of course, as where I lie, together with three others, is in a cellar. I was unable to sleep a wink, because of fleas and bed bugs. My bed consists of a straw mattress and old sacks, too torn even to be used to carry coals. My arms and legs are completely covered with bites, literally, blister upon blister. It is a horrendous torment. I sleep in my clothing, winter coat, gloves, partly because of the cold–there is no stove–partly so as not to scratch myself like mad all the time.  Four weeks imprisonment in Abbrazzia. At 7:30 in the evening the light is turned off, which is worse than elsewhere, when it was kept lit. You’re already fully done sleeping at midnight and the hours drag on without end. Come dawn, it gets worse again, in another way: the bare “white” walls, up which crawl the bed bugs; this iron bedstead with its linens that haven’t been laundered for years, the barred small windows, high up, the constantly locked door, the bucket, the dirt on the floor, the vermin in the “bed”.  And you’re so utterly powerless, so impotent, at the mercy of the arbitrariness of Italian officialdom. What ever happened to human rights? Is there such a thing anymore? Is it not a mockery of all humanity, when, today, millions are forced to wander about aimlessly, at the behest of a megalomaniacal criminal!? [Hitler] When every country spits them out again like outcasts....

Finally, bound with handcuffs, I was brought to Trieste, from there, via Venice, to Milan; then, after eight days of  louse-ridden arrest, on to Como, from there to Chiasso, always manacled, always in a single cell, mostly without any window. That was my fate until February 22nd, 1939. I spent 12 anxious hours on the mountain at Lake Como, which forms the border to Switzerland. I sent a short fervent prayer to heaven to get there, for my freedom. And HE helped me. .. I am now here, in Zurich, without any means and illegally, but I feel well all the same as good people have afforded me help.”

Friday, 3 October 2014

My Name Change: A Story about Genocide and Racism

My Name Change: A Story about Genocide and Racism.  

This year marks the 15th anniversary of my decision to change my name from Rhoda Howard to Rhoda Hassmann. I still have to use the clumsy “Howard-Hassmann” for professional reasons, as from 1976 to 1999 I published as Rhoda Howard, but my legal name is just Rhoda Hassmann. Throughout the years, people have occasionally assumed that I changed my name because I married or re-married, but that is not so. I married in 1978 and remain married to the same man, who is named neither Howard nor Hassmann. I changed my name for political reasons.

The story below is a story about genocide and racism, and what it can do to those who escape or survive it, as well as their descendants.  It was published in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on May 24, 2000, p. A20. A colleague from the then University of Western Ontario (now Western University) sent me a message shortly thereafter saying he’d made it an assigned reading in his course on racism.

It’s taken me a long time to decide to post this private story, but I have decided it is a contribution to the literature on memory and genocide, and thus worth the post. I have not made any changes to the original article, although I now know that some details of my father’s escape from Germany may be inaccurate.



The Globe and Mail (Toronto) May 24, 2000 pA20


The certificate of name change arrived on September 2, 1999: I was now Rhoda Hassmann, no longer Rhoda Howard. September 3 was my fifty-first birthday. I spent it at banks, human resources offices, the automobile club.  By the end of the day my new name was secure.

The name I adopted was that of my paternal ancestors. My father, born Helmut Hassmann in Germany, changed his name in Britain to Michael Howard in 1947. Hassmann was a German transliteration of my great-grandfather’s Russian-Jewish name, something like Chazman. My grandfather, born Bruno Hassmann, died “for the Fatherland”, as the memorial in the Jewish graveyard in Leipzig puts it: he was a doctor in the German army during the First World War.  My father was a “half-Jew”, to use Nazi terminology. 

My father escaped from Germany in 1938; the Gestapo was looking for him after he criticized Hitler at a company banquet.  Forged passport, stays in nasty prisons in Yugoslavia and Italy, a fortuitous encounter with a Swiss Quaker who protected him from deportation and helped him go to England. Then internment camps, on the Isle of Mann and in Canada; a stint in the Pioneer Corps of the British army; marriage to my mother, a Scottish gentile; and eventual immigration to Canada.

This would be a happy story of survival, were it not for my father’s profound inability to cope with what had happened to him. There is a diagnosis for people like him now: post-traumatic stress disorder. Throughout my childhood, he had  nightmares. He was unbearably angry, trusted no one except my mother.

Above all, he never told anyone who he “really” was.  The official story when we first came to Canada in 1951 was that he was a German (gentile) anti-Nazi refugee; this story changed after my parents realized the extent of anti-German prejudice in Canada. Then the official story became that my father was English. Despite his heavy European accent, we stuck to that story for years.

My sister, who is older than I, remembers being instructed on her first day of school never to tell anyone where my father came from. School forms asking for parents’ place of birth caused us distress. Our mother told me and my sister that there were some Jews in our father’s family, but instructed us never to let him know that we knew. Our father’s past was a taboo subject. My parents made a few Jewish friends: my mother would whisper to us that so-and-so was Jewish, so that we knew we could trust her.  But at dinner parties we all had to pretend that no one at the dining room table was Jewish.

In the early 1960s my father watched television reports of the Eichmann trials with another “half-Jew”, a man from Poland whose first wife and two children had been gassed. He claimed to be South African, and like my father had an adopted English name. Although each of their wives had whispered her husband’s secret to the other, neither man ever spoke of his background.

When I was fifteen, my father told me he had “something to confess: I am a half Jew”.  He “confessed” this to me because his mother, a German Christian, was coming to Canada to visit us, the first time she would meet us children. Many years later, I learned from a distant Jewish cousin that she had announced her intention to tell us who we were.  But even after my father “confessed”, we were still under strict instructions to hide. Only when I went to McGill University at seventeen did I learn to my great surprise that there were many Jews who actually were open about their identity. 

My father never came to terms with his past. Very rarely he mentioned something about it: on my last visit with him, he told me how upset he had been when he was denied access around 1935 to his local swimming pool. He felt guilty that he had not been able to save the life of a favorite Jewish aunt, even though he could not possibly have done so. Sometime in the 1970s he listened to his employer’s advice never to trust a Jew, without revealing his identity.

Just prior to his death in 1998, at the age of 84, my father was taking a course in Italian at McGill. As an oral report he told his young colleagues about his adventures in Europe, concluding that all his problems had been because his step-father was Jewish.  Even then, 60 years after escaping from Germany, he could not bring himself to say in public that his own father had been a Jew. He told me on our last visit that if someone asked him a direct question, he would not lie: but otherwise, he said, it was “not worth it” to reveal the truth.

 For many years I wanted to change my name back, but as long as my father lived, I could not.  He would have been angry and afraid.  He might have asked me to keep my “old” name for the return address on my letters, just as many years ago he asked his mother to put “Collin” not “Cohn” on her letters (she refused). So I waited, always irritated by the effects of  bearing a fraudulent English name.

So now I have done it: I have my “real” name. The profound effects of the Holocaust on my attitudes, thinking, and scholarship at last have some tangible expression. I no longer bear a name adopted because of fear. It’s a bit late in the game, after 51 years with the other name: what if I die young, I asked myself last September, after all this hassle of making the change?  But I decided that if I do die young, I want to die as who I am.