For decades, more than 100 mouse-nibbled fruit boxes, tea chests and old leather suitcases sat untouched in a 3-metre pile in the backyard shed of Frances Newell’s home in suburban Melbourne.
They were stuffed with thousands of letters – some in German, others in English – that she had kept when her father moved out of their family home in Castlemaine in the 1990s.
The 73-year-old knew she was taking in a trove of heirlooms, as the family had dragged the “mountains of letters” across their many homes in regional Victoria over the years. But the size of the task meant she continually put off sorting through them.
The retired academic and teacher was aware that her late mother, Evelyn Parker, had been involved in progressive causes in her youth, and had met her father, James Newell, when they were both conscientious objectors during the second world war.
Parker had also told her children about the years she spent in Berlin in the 1930s teaching English to Jewish families, and in particular the bond she had formed with a German couple, Max and Malwine Schindler.
The Schindlers – no relation to the industrialist Oskar – had been held up in the eyes of Frances and her siblings as a noble pair who defied the Nazis before and during the war to save vulnerable people.
But when Parker died in 1988, the family were left with a gap in the legacy of their mother and the Schindlers. When Frances visited Berlin in 2016 to fill in the missing pieces of the family folklore, searches for the Schindlers at museums and libraries turned up no significant records.
This void in the Schindlers’ story left Frances with “a very strong sense of obligation” to make sure it would not be forgotten.
So in 2017 she and her siblings finally sat down and began sifting through the tranche of letters.
What they discovered were vivid details about Parker’s role in a long-forgotten underground network established by anti-Nazi activists that helped Jews and political dissidents flee Germany, as escape routes rapidly closed.
‘An important part of the network’
Born in Lancashire in 1912, Parker got to know the Schindlers after becoming a pen pal of their son Rudolf, who was her age. She spent a gap year with the Schindlers in 1930, before Rudolf spent a year with her family in England.
Then, at the beginning of 1934, she received a letter from Max asking for her urgent help in Berlin.
Max explained that he had lost his job at the local council in the Berlin district of Neukölln because he was active in the Social Democratic party (SPD in German), which was banned after the Nazis took power in 1933.
He was now setting up an English-languague school and library, which was a disguise for a network of SPD-aligned and progressive activists, to help Jews and others persecuted by the Nazis for their politics to get out of Germany.
“So, off I set,” Parker said in 14 pages of handwritten notes, the only previous attempt at recording her experiences. “The bulk of our students were prospective refugees, most Jews, we taught them the requisite amount of English … and did anything else for them we could.”
The language school meant the Schindlers could send their students to Britain, where they were taken in by contacts made through the labour movement.
That year, while his daughter was in Berlin, Parker’s father placed a classified ad in this masthead, then known as the Manchester Guardian, seeking “board and lodging in English families” for Max’s students. There was a surge of similar ads as Jews scrambled to get out of Europe.
This allowed Jewish Germans to bypass the exhaustive process of organising migration to the UK or the US through the Nazi authorities, which demanded proof, often unachievable, of wealth or financial support at their destination.
Parker’s contacts in England made her an important part of the network. Her presence in Germany meant the Schindlers could introduce her to people as a visitor, taking her to birthdays and social events to allow SPD members to congregate.
“Here’s this young English woman, they could say, ‘we’re showing her the sights, come meet her’,” Frances says. “But there was an underlying story behind that – it was about resistance to the Nazis.”
Parker returned to Lancashire in 1935, and continued corresponding with the Schindlers about the school while working to find families in England who could accept more refugees. It was the letters she received from them before and after the war, as well as some photographs, that ended up in the shed in Melbourne.
There are also letters with others, including a Jewish man, Paul Rosenfeld, whom Parker had taught English and helped prepare for migration while working as an au pair for his family throughout 1936, when she was again in Berlin.
Rosenfeld made it to England in 1939, and met Parker during the war.
“It was a great joy to unexpectedly see you again after a long time in the hotel and to chat about memories of past well-lived days,” he wrote to her in January 1940. “Meanwhile a lot has changed.”
However, correspondence with another Jewish woman did not continue after the war. Frances has since confirmed she did not survive the Holocaust.
Frances says she was always proud of her mother’s efforts, and her father’s wartime activism, and took inspiration from them for her own involvement in protests against the Vietnam war, for which she was twice jailed.
‘We had to honour them’
At first Frances’s sister Jan (also Newell) would come to her house each Friday to sift through the letters. Progress slowed during 2019, but Melbourne’s long Covid lockdowns in 2020 gave Frances time to devote herself to the process.
She estimates she must have spent “well in excess of 600 hours” going through them.
“In those prewar years, they were so unbelievably optimistic. These are young people, they’re full of joy and optimism. They really thought that they were going to make it, that the world was not going to take the path it did. That’s the great tragedy of it, the contrast of the early years and the tone of the latter years,” Frances says.
Jan says: “In reading the letters, you got such a sense of the Schindlers as individuals, as if you knew them … It was very clear that Mum loved them.”
The Schindlers ran the network until the outbreak of war made emigration impossible, but when the Nazis began evicting and deporting Berlin Jews in 1941, the couple used their apartment to hide families from the Gestapo. Max was conscripted into the army, to work as an English translator for prisoners of war in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Rudolf was sentenced by a court to castration for the crime of being a schizophrenic. Records show he was used as a guinea pig in concentration camp experiments. Rudolf died in circumstances that remain unclear.
In a letter to Parker in September 1945, Max wrote: “We hid Jewish friends of ours till the very last moment at the risk of our lives.”
The exact number of people the Schindlers saved is unknown, but seven people provided testimonies about the couple, which led to Malwine being honoured by the Berlin senate in 1963 as an “unsung hero” (Max had died a few years after the war).
Apart from that ceremony, public details of the Schindlers’ efforts were scarce.
So at the end of 2019, after realising the wealth of information she had, Frances asked the city of Berlin to consider installing one of the 12 commemorative plaques chosen each year outside the Schindlers’ home.
The application was backed up with research by Berlin’s Silent Heroes memorial centre, and last month, the plaque was unveiled outside the Schindlers’ former home at Pariser Strasse 54 in the Wilmersdorf district.
Frances plans to visit next year, and the city has promised an official ceremony to mark the occasion.
“A sense of obligation to tell that story has kept me going for the last six years,” she says. “I found reading through them really hard, it was hard work.”
“At least there’s recognition now,” Jan says. “Mum would be pleased. I feel like there was an enormous sense that we had to honour them in some way. There was also a sense of there being so much suffering.
“It didn’t feel like it had been laid to rest, and it felt important to do something.”