We Shall Never Understand Why

Divorced by her Protestant husband, the Jewish Lilli Jahn was sent to her death despite her pleas. Sixty years on, her grandson has documented the story, which airs on television tonight.

"Oh, children, when shall we be able to be together again? My patience is running out from day to day. Father should go to the Gestapo and insist that they release me at long last. And he should go there immediately! Please, please, please! Sometimes I have so much heartache when I think about how little you are being cared for and how much you are being left to your own devices!"

This is what Lilli Jahn wrote on February 6, 1944 to her children after half a year's imprisonment at the Breitenau Labor Camp. This letter, along with 570 others, was found and sorted by Martin Doerry, currently the editor of the German weekly Der Spiegel. Lilli Jahn was his Jewish grandmother, and the father mentioned in her letter was Ernst Jahn, Doerry's grandfather and a Protestant German who divorced his wife in the middle of World War II even though he knew that this would lead to her arrest and ultimately her death. Despite the mother's pleas, the father did not make an effort to speak with the authorities.

Doerry inherited the letters from Jahn to her children, and especially her four daughters, in 1998 after the death of his uncle, Gerhard Jahn, who served as justice minister in Willy Brandt's government. The letters included those that were sent between Jahn and her children before she was sent to Auschwitz, and also one letter that she somehow managed to send from the concentration camp.

These letters appear in the book Mein Verwundetes Herz: Das Leben der Lilli Jahn 1900 - 1944 (published in English as "My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944," Bloomsbury, 2004), which was published in Hebrew by Keter last year along with the correspondence between Doerry's grandparents during their courtship well before the war. This evening at 9 P.M. on Channel 8 there will be a broadcast of "A Letter to Lilli," a BBC documentary film in which Doerry and his mother Ilse go to the town of Immenhausen near the city of Kassel, where the family lived before and during the war. They come to the house where at the order of the Nazi authorities, the plaque bearing the name of Lilli Jahn, the town doctor, was removed. They discover that the house is in good condition, and that it has not been repainted. Today, too, it is possible to see where the plaque had been: It left a pale spot on the wall.

Doerry, 51, who took part in the making of the documentary film based on his book, visited Jerusalem about two weeks ago. He came to Israel in order to interview Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ("an impressive woman," he says). But he took advantage of the visit also for family matters. His sister, who became a religious Jew, is the ultra-Orthodox mother of 10 children and lives in Jerusalem. Doerry and his other sister, a doctor who lives in Berlin, are secular Christians "with no religious connections," he says. His mother and her sisters were raised by his grandmother Lilli as Protestants, even though she was Jewish. And thus they remained.

I wept on the way to work

Director Roger Childs was looking for a subject for a film for the Passover and Easter holidays when he heard about Doerry's book from a German colleague. "When we first made contact with Doerry, he refused the project," relates Childs in a telephone interview from his home in London. "He said that he had received all kinds of offers to make films based on the book, and that the family had decided not to make a documentary of the story. But as before her arrest and during the war Lilli herself habitually listened to BBC radio, the family felt that it could trust us."

The story moved Childs tremendously. "What disturbed me - I wept on the way to work because of this - was that Lilli sent in a package the letters that the children had sent her. This was undoubtedly a very difficult thing for her to do, to separate from the letters that instilled hope in her, and it shows that perhaps she knew where she was being taken, or that she knew that if the letters were found on her in a body search, they would kill her."

In the film they speak a great deal about the father. He is called "weak" and a "coward," but there is a feeling that his daughter, Ilse, defends him a bit.

Is it possible that in a modern-day court they would have decided that divorcing and not extending help to the mother is tantamount to complicity in a crime? Childs replies: "This is one of the reasons the family did not want the story to be adapted into a film. When the book first came out, they experienced a very strong negative response to the father. Many strangers who did not know the father at all judged him for his actions. Ilse said that he was weak, but even so she rebuilt her relationship with him. The father always felt that he was the victim. In retrospect, it was difficult to be a strong person in that period. I am not justifying him. He was without a doubt a person who did not stand by his children, and certainly not by Lilli.

"What was important to Ilse was to say that it is Nazi Germany that was guilty. At first I thought of calling the film 'Fatherland' but after some thought I decided that this wasn't fair. The film is not at all about the father, but rather about Lilli and her children, about their spirit of survival."

The inhabitants didn't ask

After the war the father was arrested by the Russians and sent to a prison camp in the Soviet Union. When he returned from the camp, the children did not want anything to do with him. The four daughters moved to England, where they lived with their Jewish grandmother and ignored the father's attempts to make contact with them. The son, who during the war had served in an anti-aircraft unit of the Wehrmacht and was obligated to defend the regime that persecuted his mother, remained in Germany.

The Jahns' divorce occurred after the father brought his pregnant mistress Rita into the family's home and clinic, and Lilli Jahn had to deliver the child in her own home, at his demand. The mother and child were moved to a different apartment in the town. Temporarily, the mother pasted on the mailbox an old calling card on which the title "Doctor" was written, without the addition of the name "Sarah," which had been forced on every Jewish woman in the Third Reich. Because of these two so-called crimes (Jewish doctors were forbidden to use the title "Doctor") she was sent to the long imprisonment that culminated in her death.

In the film, the son and his mother return to Immenhausen and visit the detention facility at Breitenau. Very little has changed at the family home. The same bath, the same room, but fewer beds. Ilse Doerry looks out of the window of the house emotionally. Exactly the same window, she relates, from which she used to look out with concern toward Breitenau, where her mother was detained 60 years ago.

"Ilse did not like going back to the house in Immenhausen," relates Childs. "It was hard for her. She was welcomed nicely. Today Lilli Jahn is famous in the town, but there are many people who are living there today and lived there then and knew that the mother had been taken, and didn't ask anything. She was the town doctor and there is no doubt that they noticed she was gone. Everyone knew."

The film does not transmit any message of reconciliation from the family.

"True," says Childs, and as proof of this he relates: "We didn't include in the film a segment in which Ilse goes to visit a girlfriend of hers whose husband was in the Wehrmacht, and now she has on the mantel pictures of him in Nazi uniform. The friend herself was a counselor in the Hitler Youth Movement."

Why didn't the other three sisters participate in the film?

Childs: "They did not want to, but they gave their permission. Only with their agreement did Martin and his mother agree to make this film. They asked that Lilli's letters, her words, speak for themselves. They stipulated that there would be no dramatization in the film."

But there are dramatizations in the film. The mother and her daughters are rendered by British actresses, who read the letters in their own voices and in a British accent.

"I didn't have any other way to reproduce those parts without dramatization," explains Childs. "I remained faithful to the descriptions and words of the letters themselves. I did not add any other dialogue."

I tried to hide my emotions

"To tell the truth, they didn't like it at all and my mother didn't like it either," says Martin Doerry on the dramatization in the film. "I thought that this was absolutely essential. My mother had to admit that the film is good and she liked Roger very much. Even if she couldn't stand the fact that actresses played her and her mother.

"Ever since the book came out, my mother and her sisters have not wanted a dramatization of their lives. We received three offers to make cinematic films from three German studios and we had to refuse. 'It must be the truth,' they said. 'Don't mix fantasy with reality.' I was very disappointed by their reaction because one of the offers was really good. Through a feature film you reach a wider audience. At first I gave my agreement, but I withdrew it because of their objections."

In the documentary, when Doerry and his mother arrive in Immenhausen, the first thing they see in the town is the mosque. Is it possible to understand from this that things have changed significantly? Doerry says no: "There is a small community of Muslims there. The town has changed in a different way. It took it quite a while to acknowledge the story of my family and my grandmother. During the decades after the war its inhabitants were not able to accept the blame. The new generations, which are younger than me, the people who were born in the 1960s and the 1970s, and are now businesspeople, stockbrokers and the like, started to ask what happened in the town and wanted to tell Lilli's story. They decided to name the school after her and they have named a street after her.

"It was amazing to see my mother's house, and the faded place where the plaque of my grandmother's clinic used to hang," adds Doerry. "I had never been in that house. I knew that it exists, but I had no reason to be there. We didn't believe that nothing had changed."

After the visit to Immenhausen, Doerry went on with the film crew to the Auschwitz concentration camp - the last station in his grandmother's life. His mother did not join him there. "She couldn't do it," they explain in the film. During the visit he talks about the sense of alienation at the place.

Childs believes that what Doerry intended to show was that he did not succeed in getting any closer to his grandmother through the visit to the camp, but Doerry tries to explain the uncomfortable feeling in a different way. "On the trip to Auschwitz I said to myself that I had to be strong. 'Try to be professional, but don't be too emotional.' That was my stance when I went in there," he relates. "During the filming I tried to conceal my emotions. This is a private matter, not a matter for the general public. Inside I felt differently and I hated it that they were filming me there. Roger is a wonderful person, but it wasn't a good idea to film me there. I think that once in a lifetime a person has to be in Auschwitz, but I would rather have been there without a camera."