Kurt Simon and the 2 Cousins

Simon, Robert & Lola

A tribute to uncle Kurt by Thomas Simon – Alkmaar, Netherlands

Two cousins

Kurt Simon and my father, Robert Simon, were first cousins. Their fathers were the oldest sons of Leopold Simon, who in 1887 founded the wood manufacturing and trading company Döllken in the western, industrial part  of Germany. 

Kurt’s father Ernst entered Leopold’s firm and built it up to become the most innovative and one of the biggest of its kind in Germany and even in Europe before World War II. His younger brother Hugo, my grandfather, studied to become a medical doctor and pediatrician in the capital Berlin on the other, eastern side of Germany.

The distance in miles between the two brothers did not prevent them from fostering  close ties. At birth my father was given the middle name “Ernst” in honor of his fathers eldest brother.

Kurt was born in Werden (from 1929 part of the city of Essen) in June 1912, Robert in Berlin, in February 1913. They must have lived completely different lives. Kurt grew up as the son of the well known industrialist, being greeted respectfully by the people in his town, while Robert was one of the two million inhabitants of Berlin. But, both visited the best schools around, receiving a thorough and classical (languages!) education.

The two Simon cousins, growing up on either side of Germany, probably only met at family festivities. But after Hitler had come to power in 1933 they would come to see each other on a daily basis. Kurt had left university already before April 1933 because of the rising Anti Semitism, and Robert fell victim to Hitler’s ruling that forbade Jews to receive higher education. He was forced to leave his higher studies in Berlin and like his cousin Kurt entered a traineeship at the big family factory in Essen-Werden.

Those were strange years. There we have two young men in their early twenties, each driving his own car, both of them womanizers, taking their friends out to the beautiful landscape surrounding the town , enjoying, singing, playing tennis on the family tennis courts. And during working hours learning how to manage the family company, at some future date. Meanwhile the clouds of Nazism thickened mercilessly. Measure after measure, step by step the Jews were isolated from the people around them. Non-Jews were forbidden to mix with Jews, non-Jewish companies were more or less forbidden to do business with Jewish companies, certain professions were forbidden to Jews, Jewish doctors lost their patients, Jewish lawyers lost their clients, and so on. 

For the two cousins the tightening of that Nazi noose was unacceptable. In 1936 they both fled their home country. Kurt went first, to the US. Later that year Robert took a job in a bank on a tiny island in the Caribbean, Aruba. Anything, anywhere,  just to get away from Hitler Germany.

Their new lives weren’t easy.  Both had to work very hard to make a living and contrary to what they had been used to, they had to survive in poor conditions. But they didn’t complain. They struggled, climbed, managed.

When Germany invaded Holland in May 1940 Robert was taken prisoner on Aruba, as the Dutch considered him to be a German enemy. He and my Hungarian mother, with whom he married two months before their imprisonment, were shipped to the even tinier island of Bonaire, also part of the Dutch West Indies. My parents were forced to stay on that island, mostly inhabited by  donkeys, for 2½ years. When they were allowed to return to Aruba in the Fall of 1942 they found most of their belongings stolen. Until the end of the war Robert had to report to the police twice a day. They were not allowed to go out after sunset, he was not allowed to have a job that would bring him into contact with other people. But what hurt Robert most, was not the poverty, nor the humiliation, nor the wasted years of his life, but the fact that all these years he hadn’t been able to help his and his wife’ s families, who were trapped in the hell of Europe. He suffered from that.

In that sense Kurt was luckier. At least he could do something, and of course he did. He enlisted in the US Army and went to Europe. It wasn’t easy for someone of German descent in the American army. There were suspicions, that hurt him deeply. But he proudly fought back and overcame the setbacks. Kurt was also lucky that his parents, Ernst en Else, had managed to reach the US in time. They were safe. But the man who just a few years ago had owned a company that employed more than 600 people, now had to work as a hand laborer in California until his death at the age of 73 in 1945. His wife had to help him earn a living, by being a babysitter.

The first days of June 1945 Kurt entered Germany from Holland. He wrote a long letter to his parents about the people he met in their hometown Essen-Werden and about the state in which he found the company.

But what struck me, reading that letter after 65 years, in 2010, was the concern with which Kurt urged his parents to pass on a copy of that same letter to his cousin Robert in Aruba, while it contained the information that Roberts mother, his sister and her husband and their children had survived the war. That same day, June 5 1945, Kurt had already cabled Robert this news, but he wanted to make sure that Robert would get it by all possible means,  “( ) … but I wish you would give the copy of this letter to Robert priority I A and mail it in airmail. ( )”

Kurt understood.

Thomas Simon
Alkmaar, Netherlands

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