Holocaust Memorial Day – Ordinary People, Bulldogs Bank and the Dann Sisters

By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist

The topics and contents of this blog contain antisemitic and xenophobic attitudes prevalent in 20th century Europe which are outdated, offensive, or discriminatory. This content has been included  to authentically represent the original documents and the experiences of those involved and is not an endorsement of these views.

On the 27th  January 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi German Concentration Camps, was liberated by Soviet soldiers. The 27th January is now used to mark the date of Holocaust Memorial Day; a day to encourage remembrance of the millions of Jews, Roma and other persecuted groups systematically murdered during World War Two. The day has also expanded to include other victims of genocide, such as the cases in Cambodia, Rwanda, or Bosnia.

Today, on the 27th January 2023, we will be looking at the life story of two Jewish sisters, Gertrud and Sophie Dann, and the actions of ordinary people that helped shape their lives in 20th century Europe. Their family archives – Add Mss 27058-27063 – are browsable on our online catalogue and free to access in person at West Sussex Record Office.

Sepia photograph of four sisters, Sophie, Elisabeth, Gertrud and Lotte Dann ages ranging from around 20 to 7.
Sophie, Elisabeth, Gertrud and Lotte Dann c1920. Image courtesy of Ricominciare sempre da capo by Lotte Dann Treves at https://www.ojs.unito.it/index.php/RSUT/article/download/280/pdf_1/ [Accessed 13th January 2021]

Life in Germany

Sophie and Gertrud Dann were born in Augsburg, Southern Germany, in 1900 and 1908 respectively to Albert and Fanny Dann. There were five daughters in total: Sophie, Thea, Elisabeth, Gertrud and Lotte. Sadly, Thea had passed away young in 1918. For Lotte and Elisabeth, they moved abroad and would marry: Lotte in Italy, England then back to Italy, and Elisabeth in Palestine. Sophie and Gertrud stayed with their parents in Germany. Sophie became a nurse with a particular focus on paediatric care; Gertrud followed in her footsteps, pursuing the same career. The sisters, in biographies penned by themselves, speak of a comfortable childhood, where they grew up valuing both their German and Jewish heritage.

With the rise of the Nazis, the Dann family’s position – just like many other Jewish families across Germany – became precarious. Sophie was fired from her two jobs in 1933, whilst Gertrud found that her Kindergarten became a Jewish only institution which was later forced to close. No doubt foreseeing what was likely to happen, Sophie would help young Jewish girls emigrate to England, sending fourteen in total to a London woman in need of domestic servants.

Open two page spread of a workbook. Embossed on the pages are a Nazi eagle and several swastikas.
Add Mss 36776 – Gertrud Dann’s Workbook issued in 1935, detailing her employment at Kindergartens.

After their father was imprisoned for ten days in 1938 the family decided that they needed to leave Germany. Upon his release, the parents went to Palestine via Italy. Sophie and Gertrud meanwhile came to England using Sophie’s connections.

Coming to the UK

The sisters left in April 1939, first travelling to London to work as servants. Jewish refugees at that time struggled to find jobs. They had to seek permission from the Aliens Department of the Home Office before taking up employment and were not supposed to volunteer for fear of taking paid employment from British workers (see Add Mss 36780 further down).

It was so late when my sister Gertrud and I decided to emigrate that there was no other country except England that would accept us, penniless as we then were.

Sophie Dann, Add Mss 36782

It is safe to say that Sophie and Gertrud did not have an easy start to their time in the UK. The two women, trained as nurses but initially unable to take appropriate work for their skills, went through several short stints of employment with assorted colourful characters, including a woman who the sisters claimed: “the word ‘kindness’ did not exist either in her vocabulary or in her mind”. They experienced both antisemitism and anti-German abuse from both employers and ordinary people in their day to day lives. This included being denied work for being ‘Jewish Jews’ as opposed to ‘Catholic Jews’ (that is – ethnically Jewish but practicing Catholicism), not being allowed to touch children on account of being Jewish and being viewed with suspicion for their German accents and nationality.

We learned that there were two categories of employers in England: the first wanted to give refugees a new start and home, whilst the second were those whom no English maid would have stayed. It was a pity that all our various employers belonged in the second category.

Gertrud Dann, Add Mss 36782

Alongside such prejudice and abuse however, the women spoke of the constancy and kindness both of people in London and the friends they had been forced to leave behind in Germany.

Their fortunes would change upon Sophie making the acquaintance of Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter and one of the founding figures of child psychology. Anna had wanted the Dann sisters to start work in her Hampstead Nurseries, but the women were initially unable to accept, feeling duty bound to stay with their (at the time) current employer. When the time came however, both sisters were able to work in the nursery and receive further training. The sisters, during their time in charge of the baby department and the junior toddlers, contributed significantly to research published by Anna, focusing on the impact of stress on children and their ability to find affection and comfort in their peers when parental figures were absent.

It was also through Anna that Sophie and Gertrud met Lady Clarke. Rebekah Mary Clarke was the wife of East Grinstead MP Ralph Clarke, and she took a particular interest in Anna Freud’s work. The kindness of Sophie towards Lady Clarke in making her feel welcome attending Anna Freud’s lectures would be paid back tenfold once the war had ended and Anna’s nursery was closed. It is through these connections with Anna and Rebekah that the Dann sisters would have their futures shaped. 

Life after World War Two

In 1945, Sophie had to undergo a major operation which required a significant period of convalescence. Lady Clarke offered her a place to stay in West Hoathly. Gertrud and Sophie would arrive in Sussex in July 1945. The full scale of the Holocaust was becoming known to the British public, and schemes were being set up for those orphaned by the genocide. Lady Clarke and her husband bought Bulldogs Bank as part of the Foster Parents Plan, now Plan International USA. The property, situated between West Hoathly and Sharpthorne, was turned into a home for six orphaned children. These children had been held in the Theresienstadt ghetto during the war. Theresienstadt was a transit camp for Czech Jews. Of the 140,000 Jews transferred to Theresienstadt, 90,000 were deported to concentration and prisoner of war camps. More than 30,000 died at Theresienstadt itself.

Whilst caring for the children, Anna Freud and Sophie wrote a report on the children’s upbringing and their efforts to learn English. The work undertaken at Bulldogs has been documented extensively, with many of the children going on to speak about their early memories in West Sussex. The report, which is available online, is called An Experiment in Group Upbringing and was published in 1951. Add Mss 36784, Sophie’s notes for the report documenting the children learning a new language, is available to view at WSRO.

1.12.1945. We passed one of the cottages when the kind owner came to the gate and gave flowers to the children. Paul said: “Flowers”, and after some thinking “lovely flowers”, and then: “Many lovely flowers, thank you!” The woman was so pleased that she kissed him.

Sophie Dann, The Adaptation to a New Language, Add Mss 36784

Once the children had become of age or were adopted, Bulldogs Bank closed. From there, Lady Clarke obtained a home for the Dann sisters. It is in West Hoathly where the sisters write of everyday kindnesses: from the baker who refused to charge the family for his cakes, buns, and scones; to the builder’s wife who made phone calls on behalf of a telephone-less Sophie and Gertrud; to the vicar’s widow who would take the sisters for drives in the countryside. Lady Clarke would allow the sisters to live rent free in properties until they began receiving a stable income. She endeavoured to give them whatever help she was able, such as lending them a car to learn how to drive.

The vicar, Rev. Groves, who was Chaplain for the Air Force in Germany for many years is very good to us… Actually many people in West Hoathly are as good to us as they were to our parents and, more than 25 years ago, to those six orphans in Bulldogs Bank.

Sophie Dann, Add Mss 36782

As such, Sophie and Gertrud’s parents were invited to come to England from Israel in 1950 and stay close to their daughters. They would spend their final years in West Hoathly and appeared to have had a very quiet retirement.

People in this small village were very impressed by our parents, who never, never complained, never mentioned their former big house, their servants, their chauffeur-driven car. They collected firewood on their daily walks and dragged it to the cottage. Once a week Father went by bus to the nearest town and carried the shopping home. We heard later that West Hoathly people called our father “Rabbi Dann”.

Gertrud Dann, Add Mss 36782

When their father died in 1960, he was buried in the West Hoathly churchyard at his and the family’s request. His service was led by the Minister of the Brighton and Hove New Synagogue, with the Parish Vicar also giving a reading. Albert was 92. Sophie and Gertrud’s mother would pass away nine years later and was buried with her husband. Sophie died in 1993 at the age of 93 in Sharpthorne, and Gertrude would follow at the age of 89 in 1998. Elisabeth, the sister who had moved to Palestine before the Second World War began, died in 2012 at the age of 105. Finally Lotte, the sister whose life in Cambridge and Italy could have made for a blog on its own, died in 2018, also at the age of 105.

Entry reads: Albert Ludwig Dann 1 Highcroft Cottage Sharpthorne, 3rd October 1960, 92.
Par 379/1/5/3 – Albert Dann’s – Sophie and Gertrud’s father – burial entry in the West Hoathly parish register.

The Impact of Ordinary People

Sophie and Gertrud’s story is both one of immense kindness and thoughtless cruelty. The two women endured antisemitism in many forms during their time in Britain, as well as suffering from anti-German sentiments during the war. It was difficult at times for them to find reliable and well-paid work, and many people they interacted with did not understand the extent of the hardship that the sisters were going through. The bilingual booklet given to them about how best to blend in with British culture has a disturbing tone with the implications to the ‘limits’ to British people’s tolerance regarding refugees.

Equally however, Anna Freud and Lady Clarke’s kindness in providing employment and a house for the sisters enabled them to truly settle and be at home within the UK. The people of West Hoathly and Sharpthorne accepted the sisters and their parents into their community. With that, both sisters were able to live their lives doing things they wished to pursue, and their parents were able have peaceful final years.

To say that the Danns were fortunate is an understatement. In 1985, Sophie and Gertrud were invited back to Augsburg for the rededication of the synagogue. Sophie wrote that, out of an original congregation of 1,000 members, only six who lived in mixed marriages were still in Augsburg after the war. The rest had become refugees, like the Danns, or had been killed.

The theme for the 2023 Holocaust Memorial Day is Ordinary People. It speaks to all those involved – whether by choice or by circumstance. As stated by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website:  

“Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and ordinary people were victims.”

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

In the case of the Dann sisters, we can see examples of each of these people:

Those who stamped their passports with a red J to mark them as ‘other’; those who were prejudiced against their Jewish heritage and German nationality.

Those who gave them work and the ability to emigrate, but for less than selfless reasons.

Those who offered work and a home and a peaceful life to the sisters and their parents; those who did not falter in their kindness.

Those from the Augsburg Jewish congregation who survived, and those who did not.

A small exhibition displaying some of the documents left to us by the Dann sisters will be viewable until the 4th of February 2023. Thereafter any visitor to the Record Office would be welcome to order and view the originals in our public searchroom.

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