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An Accidental History: The Last Train by Peter Bradley

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Memoir | Non-Fiction
The Last Train

By Peter Bradley

My book probably provides an object lesson in how not to write one. It crept up on me, theme by theme and page by page until I had a manuscript of 129,000 words, 700 footnotes and a bibliography.

Even its origins were accidental. Back in 2005, I’d written an article for a local newspaper to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It was one in a long series of pieces I’d contributed as the local MP. But this was different.

Its focus was my father who had died just six months earlier. We’d not been especially close. He was reserved and a little unworldly; he valued peace and quiet. But, long before I was born, he had lived through tumultuous times about which he rarely spoke. In the writing of my book, I came to understand and respect the father I had not really known.

My column was based on a letter he had written home some ten days after he’d reached the UK on 10 May 1939, a month after his release from Buchenwald. In it he describes his first impressions of English life. But poignantly, at its close, he looks forward to seeing his parents again soon in London. In his heart, he knew they would not come.

In that short piece, I inadvertently summoned an image which was to haunt me for years until I felt compelled to sit down and write. It was of two trains, the one my father boarded as he parted from his parents at Frankfurt South station and headed west to freedom; the other, which they were forced to take in November 1941, and which bore them east to Latvia.

I knew how my father’s journey ended, or I thought I did. But what of the grandparents I’d never met?  I can’t explain why, but I conceived a simple, finite plan: to follow the path of that train.

If I’d been able to discover it, perhaps there would have been no book, or a very different one. But no reliable record could be found. So, years later, when I did travel from Nuremberg to Riga, the route I took was inevitably approximate and symbolic.

But by then my single, unanswered question had given rise to many others, first about the people who made up my family, then about what happened to them and, ultimately, about why it had happened.

So I set out to broaden the scope of the brief family chronicles my father and my maternal uncle had written in later life, tracing family trees back to their roots, on my mother’s side in fifteenth century Frankfurt and on my father’s in Rotenberg and Bayreuth in the seventeenth. Some of my forebears were prominent enough to be celebrated by memorialists; others left diaries and autobiographies. Online, I discovered the outlines of the lives – and, in one special case, the wonderful memoirs – of others who were less acclaimed but at least as fascinating.

This family history was only the first layer of my book, for now I wanted to understand the historical context in which my forebears had lived. That involved a study of Germany’s Jewish communities down the ages.

Next I needed to know why my Jewish family had lived, generation after generation, segregated from mainstream society and under the constant threat of persecution. This led me to an exploration of the origins and evolution of the beliefs which shaped Christian attitudes to Jews, from the fourth century, as the early Church exerted itself over the Synagogue, through the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Reformation and the Enlightenment and so to modern times.

The brief family histories my father and maternal uncle wrote in later life did not altogether avoid the Nazi years but they did not dwell on them. After all, why would they choose to revisit the traumatic experiences of their former lives?

But when my mother died in 2010, my sister discovered a small wooden trunk in the recesses of a cupboard under the stairs. I did not open it for several years but, when I did, I found my father’s memories of a former life: the prayer shawl and holy books he brought with him from Germany, though he had lost the last of his faith in Buchenwald, his regimental badges, the 700 hundred letters he had exchanged with my mother from his army posting in India; those which had reached him from his parents until the eve of their deportation. How could I ignore them?

I was able to plug some of the gaps my father left in his chronicle, about Buchenwald for example, through the unpublished writing of distant relatives. The memoirs of others who had gone through what my father experienced, for example, his two years’ internment as an ‘enemy alien’ in Canada, were extraordinarily illuminating. The painstaking research of German historians who pieced together, often from primary sources, the gradual strangulation by the Nazis of the Jewish community in my father’s home town of Bamberg and the generous help of local archivists and museum curators in seeking out old family documents also proved invaluable.

And the memoirs and testimony of survivors of the Holocaust in Latvia shone a light on the terrible events of the years between 1941 and 1945 about which so few histories have been written. Through them, I gained a unique insight into the brutal, abbreviated lives of my grandparents in the places I came to visit in Latvia.

I had completed my journey, though not the one I’d envisaged. I would not necessarily recommend others to set out with such an uncertain idea of their destination. It took me rather longer to sculpt a manuscript that was cohesive and coherent than it did to compile the first, unwieldy, multi-layered draft. But, in the end, it represented a pilgrimage I needed to make and a homage I had to pay. I hope it will be rewarding for its readers too.

(c) Peter Bradley

About The Last Train: A Family History of the Final Solution

The profoundly moving and deeply intimate story of one Jewish family’s fate in the Holocaust, following the thread from Germany to Latvia and to Britain.

It was only by accident that Peter as a child discovered that his father, Fred Bradley, was in fact born Fritz Brandes. And it was only after his father’s death in 2004 that Peter was able to begin to piece together the family’s story and set out on the journey – literally and figuratively – that forms the basis of his book.

Peter’s family were German Jews. In 1938, his father was imprisoned in Buchenwald in the aftermath of Kristallnacht. He was released the following spring when he was granted a visa to settle temporarily in the UK. He arrived in London in May 1939, aged 24, penniless and alone. But when the Nazis invaded France and the Low Countries in May 1940, he was arrested by the British as an ‘enemy alien’ and shipped to an internment camp in Canada. His parents’ fate was to be very different: they were deported by train from their home in Bavaria to Latvia, to the Riga ghetto and nearby camps, where they were murdered.

Peter felt a growing need not only to find out what had happened, but also to try to understand why his grandparents’ fellow citizens had come to put them on that train. Of course antisemitism was at the root. But where did it come from? And why did it continue virtually unabated after WW2 despite such graphic evidence of the horrors it had caused? Why is it resurgent today?

Such apparently intractable questions led Peter to the forests of Latvia where his grandparents died and to dig deeply into the ancient roots of this prejudice. This book tells the story of what he learned.

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About the author

Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005. More recently, he co-founded and directed Speakers’ Corner Trust, a charity which promotes freedom of expression, open debate and active citizenship in the UK and developing democracies. He has written, usually on politics, for a wide range of publications, including The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman and The New European.
Peter lives with his wife Annie in Shropshire. They have two children, twins. He is a cricket enthusiast, a (fretful) Aston Villa supporter and enjoys walking and cycling (though not uphill).

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