Peter and Else Brandenburg were among the many Jewish and non-Jewish Germans who fled that country after the orchestrated Kristallnacht attacks on Jewish property and places of worship in November 1938. The family was not in sympathy with the dictatorship: Else was Jewish and her brother was executed for anti-Nazi activities in the year the family fled. Peter was a pacifist, but after Kristallnacht purchased a pair of pistols to protect his family against attack. The current issue of Irish-German Studies is largely devoted to the Irish memories of those Germans who made it to Ireland, either told by themselves or their children. The following is from an account provided by Peter and Else’s son, Denis Henderson.
Peter and Else initially settled in Rialto, and then moved to Furry Park Road, in Killester. The neighbours treated them with typical Irish hospitality, albeit tempered with slight puzzlement at the antics of these strangers in their midst, who persisted with unusual foreign customs such as hanging the bed linen out of the upstairs windows every Saturday morning to air; and scrubbing the front garden path on a weekly basis. As aliens they were kept under (very light-touch) scrutiny by the local Garda, personified by Sergeant Gantly, an absolute gentleman who lived just around the corner, and with whom a lasting friendship was struck up. Sergeant Gantly was tasked with visiting on a regular basis, and he never came empty-handed, always bringing with him some small gift or other. His loyalties were tested to the extreme when, one night, the local Garda station was contacted by a worried resident, who reported that “those Germans were up to something”. On investigation, it was found that pieces of white sheet had been laid out in the garden in order to protect seedlings from the frost ‑ this had been misinterpreted as being a signal to bombers – but it would have been a sharp-eyed pilot indeed to have spotted them from 10,000 feet up!
Sergeant Gantly went away for a few days and left his second-in-command in charge of checking up on the aliens. This man arrived, clearly ill at ease, not knowing what, exactly, to expect. He obviously had never met German people before. He was invited in an asked to sit down. He produced a large paper bag, which he presented to my grandparents with the words, “Sergeant Gantly told me not to dare to arrive empty-handed – will this do?” And he produced, out of the paper bag, a beautiful home-grown cabbage! This was, naturally, accepted gratefully.
Of course, this was during the war, when people supplemented their rations by a bit of back-garden “farming”. Ruth and Else amazed themselves at how they managed to “get in touch with their roots”, and they produced excellent crops of various vegetables despite never having done this before – beginners’ luck, perhaps. But pride of place belonged to a cauliflower, centre-stage in their back garden – a show-winner, if ever there was one. This was nurtured like a pet and it thrived and thrived until, one morning, on looking out of the window, there it was – gone!! The theft was reported to Sergeant Gantly, who made subtle enquiries and found the culprits – nearby neighbours, who made the case, quite reasonably in their opinion, that that cauliflower was far too big for the three Brandenburgs and had, instead, helped to feed a family of eight. Why hadn’t they asked permission to take it? Well, the Brandenburgs would, in all probability, have refused to let them have it, wouldn’t they? Not necessarily, as it turned out, but there followed a detailed explanation by poor old Sergeant Gantly to the new arrivals as to how the Irish wouldn’t have looked upon the dastardly deed as dishonest, strictly speaking; rather more akin to sharing with their neighbours, who needed the vegetable as food to feed themselves more than the Brandenburgs needed it as a prize centrepiece – an object of vanity, if you like. This was the first of many lessons to illustrate the difference in psyches.
Irish-German Studies is published by the Centre for Irish-German Studies at the University of Limerick.