EXTRAORDINARY LIVES - THE GLASERS

Woodcote House and 57 Church Street

INTRODUCTION

This has been a difficult article to organise, as many things went on simultaneously in different places. It doesn't always work in strict chronology. There were four Glasers (two parents, two children): the parents were together throughout most of the events described and the children were separated from them and each other eventually. There is an authoritative main source for much of what follows, but an immediate citation could give the game away, so please bear with me.

WILLY AND MARIA THERESE GLASER

I do not know where Willy was born in about 1886, but one assumes it was Germany. He was half-Jewish, gained his MD at the University of Berlin (now the Humboldt University) in 1914 and for many years practised medicine in Schlawe, Pomerania, which is now Sławno in Poland. It seems that, although he sympathised with the plight of Jews, he did not particularly consider himself Jewish. His wife, born on 4 September 1888 in Marburg, Germany, was Maria Therese (quite possibly nee Weiser). There were two children, being Kurt Joachim (born 3 September 1918) and Erica (born in Schlawe 19 February 1922). Willy was a member of the Democratic Party and outspokenly anti-Nazi.

Koszalinska Street, Schlawe, 1912.
Koszalinska Street, Schlawe, 1912.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pomerania came under the control of the Nazis in 1933. Kurt refused to join the Hitler Youth, was forced to leave school and came to England to complete his education.

Many years later Erica said of this time in Schlawe.
'… the Nazi Jewish business started, right, in 1933, I remember. I can still see it - one morning when I went to school - a group of Jews being dragged through the town, half-dressed, you know, and beaten up, and with a big sign, "I'm a Jewish swine", things like that. I remember that and I hated it.

From that moment on - since the maids would not go in and buy in the Jewish shops, my mother went and bought herself and only in Jewish shops; and she sent me to buy in Jewish shops too. So, of course, I was beaten up by the SA*, who were standing in front of the Jewish shops. And, of course, I was molested in school; children said "Oh, she bought that in a Jewish shop; she's pro-Jewish" and so on.'
*the Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment), the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi party.

Boycott of Jewish shops, April 1933.
Boycott of Jewish shops, April 1933.
(The placard says 'Germans, do not buy from Jews')
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

KMembers of the SA enforce the boycott of Jewish stores.
Members of the SA enforce the boycott of Jewish stores, Berlin, 1 April 1933.
Photo by Georg Pahl, source: German federal Archives (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14468) via Wikimedia Commons.

In December 1935 Willy and Maria Therese decided to leave for Spain, a country that Willy had been in previously and where he had held a medical licence. He had to wait for a new licence and therefore Maria Therese ran a boarding-house while Erica was sent to school in Madrid.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 the Glasers had nowhere to go: they were officially stateless, so could not leave the country unless it was to return to Germany, which was obviously not an option. Willy was given work with a Loyalist Army medical unit (the Loyalist Army supported the Republican Government against General Franco - it contained many Communists but Erica said later that Willy was not a Communist, just anti-fascist). In due course this Army was purged of foreigners, so he was transferred to a unit which largely served the Communist International Brigades; he remained therein, precariously, rising to the rank of Captain. Maria Therese and Erica served as nurses in Loyalist Army hospitals. This was no picnic. Quite apart from the political issues and the difficulty of obtaining supplies and competent personnel, hospitals were under attack. For example, the Western Morning News of 13 October 1937 reported that a hospital in Granen, Northern Spain, only founded in the previous year, had been bombed by insurgent aircraft and razed to the ground, fortunately without loss of life.

Erica said of her father in the 1950s.
'We had many difficulties because he was not a Communist, and because he always - he could never close his mouth; he said what he thought. And three times he was kicked out of the hospitals, as the head of the hospitals, for political reasons. Once he was to be shot for being an anti-Communist and, you know, all sorts of accusations - espionage against the left, and so on and so forth.

And he just barely managed to get out of it; but he lost his job; he was kicked out of the brigades. Then, again, when the situation became pretty bad at the front they called him back because they needed a doctor. But they didn't have much confidence in him. Whereas, with me, they never bothered. I was young and they were satisfied with my work and that was all they bothered about. But, my father they hated.'
The Civil War ended in the spring of 1939 with victory for Franco and foreigners were evacuated northward. Erica contracted typhoid but eventually found her parents in a town on the Spanish border, near to Perpignan in France. She said.

'We were separated by the evacuation; but I found them again in this little place where everybody else was. My mother, half dead, lying in a corner; and my father arriving half dead from another place. It was just horrible.

It was the most dreadful place I've ever seen. You know, big camp - people were lying on the streets, in the mud, wounded; it was horrible.

I was hardly able to walk. I had to walk along the houses, holding on, you see, because I couldn't walk alone, I was too weak.

I finally found my mother in a theater*. There was a little theater in that village. And on the stage, bed next to bed, and stretchers and everything, there was my mother, half dead.'
*The reason for the American spelling will be revealed in due course.

We will leave Erica there for now, as she did not come to England at that point, and continue with Willy and Maria Therese. In May 1939 the Spanish Medical Aid Committee was engaged in relief and evacuation operations and on 6 May wrote as follows: 'For some time past we have been working with the English authorities to obtain permission for Dr Willy Glaser and his wife Maria Glaser, who were extricated from the camps at Perpignan by our representative Miss Rosita Davson, to enter this country. They were staying in Paris at Rue Milton 30 for some weeks, and just as we heard that the Home Office had given them permission to come to this country and had sent them a telegram to that effect, we have received the news that they have been arrested and conveyed back to the camp at Perpignan. From that moment we have not heard of their whereabouts …' (source: TUC Archives via University of Warwick Digital Collections). There were a number of camps in the Perpignan area and they were awful - overcrowded, insanitary and about to become very dangerous, since in 1940 they came within the control of the Vichy Government under Marshal Petain and many Jewish internees were handed to the Gestapo. They were, in fact, concentration camps. One such place was the Camp de Rivesaltes or Camp Joffre.

Concentration camp near Perpignan.
A view of one of the ever-growing concentration camps near Perpignan
for the refugees from Catalonia, who continue to pour across the French frontier.
Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

This next quotation comes from a book called The Good Fight Continues by Peter N Carroll, Michael Nash and Melvin Small (NYU Press 2006), where a letter writer is describing her experiences.
'As I was working with the British Mission then I can tell you of what happened to some of our friends. Do you remember the husky German doctor who became director of the hospital in Valencia after you left? His wife took charge of the nurses. I've forgotten his name (Glaser). He had suffered from typhoid fever and like the rest of the Internationals without a country he too was put in the Argelese* Camp. … I did not recognise him when I saw him. He looked like a living skeleton.'
*the Camp de concentration d'Argeles-Sur-Mer. In March 1939, for instance, there were 80,000 Spanish refugees in the Argeles camp.

The concentration camp at Argeles.
The concentration camp at Argeles - The Daily Herald of 4 March 1939.
Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Willy and Maria Therese were extricated and came to England in the nick of time, just before the Second World War began. In 1941 Willy was licensed to practise medicine in England; the couple lived at Woodcote House and Willy's surgery was at 57 Church Street, Epsom (Beechwood House). Woodcote House had been rented by the Jewish Refugee Committee to accommodate people fleeing from continental Europe.

57 Church Street, Epsom (Beechwood House).
57 Church Street, Epsom (Beechwood House) in 1971.
Photograph by LR James. Image courtesy of Epsom and Ewell Local and Family History Centre.

After Willy's death on 20 June 1948 (he left effects of just 230), Maria Therese remained at Woodcote House as the matron of a Home for Jewish Old People, which came under the auspices of the Jewish Board of Guardians from 1950 until it was closed in 1955. After that the house was converted into flats and she lived in Flat 5. Willy is buried in Epsom Cemetery (Grave P555).

KURT JOACHIM GLASER

There is a limited amount of information about Kurt. Accounts differ concerning his birthplace- some sources say Schlawe in Pomerania and another says Tetuan in Spanish Morocco. Perhaps it does not matter greatly, since he was an exile for much of his life. However, there was a Dr Glaser in Tetuan during the First World War years (per London Gazette 22 August 1916, page 8280) and this may be a clue as to Willy's whereabouts when he had previously worked 'in Spain'.

We left Kurt earlier, having been sent to England in the mid-1930s to complete his education and, in the interests of bringing order to this complicated saga, I originally finished his story without being able to resolve what happened to him next, bearing in mind that he was just a teenager at the time. Whilst researching his sister for the next section of this article, I came across a reference to a Mrs (later Dame) Leah Manning of Essex in a newspaper report about Erica (The Elmira Star Gazette of 2 December 1954). Mention is made that Mrs Manning is Erica's friend, that Kurt was her ward and that he lived in England nearly all his life (another source says he became a medical student, but I cannot verify this). Amongst many other notable things Mrs Manning was a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee and in 1937 was in the forefront of evacuating nearly 4,000 Basque children from Spain to Britain on the SS Habana (most of them were returned to their families in Spain as soon as it was safe, but those aged 16 or over had a choice and some stayed in Britain).

Basque Children waiting to land from the SS Habana at Southampton
Basque Children waiting to land from the SS Habana at Southampton.
Image Source - Illustrated London News 29 May 1937

Mrs Manning saw the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion (helping out Franco) in April 1937 and also experienced at first hand the bombing of Valencia. By this convoluted route I have now found that it was she, in her capacity of Honorary Secretary, who wrote the report for the Spanish Medical Aid Committee from which I quoted earlier, urging relevant authorities to find the Glasers and get them out. Don't bother with the skeletal article on Leah Manning in Wikipedia, but go to Newsletter Number 181 of the Loughton and District Historical Society. Hers was another extraordinary life.

Leah Manning
Leah Manning, as pictured in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette - 10 November 1933.
Image © Johnston Press plc. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Kurt was classified as an enemy alien and was just one of thousands of refugees from the Nazis who volunteered to help the Allied war effort. Initially they were allowed only in the Pioneer Corps and Kurt served in this at first.

Many of these refugees from Europe had considerable talents to offer the British Forces: they obviously spoke relevant foreign languages fluently, knew their way round in particular European countries and were hugely committed to defeating the Nazis, whatever it took. By the same token, they were in greater peril than the British, especially if they were Jewish and were captured. They were likely to be summarily executed.

In 1940 there was an initiative to create a commando unit made up largely of European refugee personnel but efforts floundered. In 1942 another attempt was made and this resulted in the creation of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando. Generally the troops of this unit were formed according to nationality, so there were, for example, two French troops, a Polish troop and so on. However, nothing was as unusual as No.3 (X) Troop, which mainly comprised Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria.

3 troop of 10 Inter-Allied Commando.
3 troop of 10 Inter-Allied Commando. Kurt is second right at the very back, partially obscured.
Image © Commando Veterans Association and licensed under this Creative Commons licence

The commander of 3 Troop was Welshman Captain Bryan Hilton-Jones, who was by all accounts a remarkable officer (he was awarded the Military Cross and promoted to Major in due course) and it needed someone special to train and control this bunch of men who couldn't wait to tackle the Nazis.

Some of 3 Troop's specialist training took place at Aberdovey in Snowdonia and there is a memorial in Aberdovey's Penhelig Park.

The memorial in Penhelig Park, Aberdovey.
The memorial in Penhelig Park, Aberdovey.
Image © Commando Veterans Association and licensed under this Creative Commons licence

The men of 3 Troop were given British names, were required to memorise details of their supposed British home town and were fictitiously given the insignia etc of other regiments, all of which was designed to help them if they were captured and questioned. Kurt Joachim Glaser ostensibly became Keith James Griffith 322333 (also 6387018) of the Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment. Having reached the rank of Lance Corporal, he was granted an emergency commission on 2 June 1944. The date is significant of course - it was just four days before the Normandy Landings and some members of 3 Troop were waiting at Littlehampton, Sussex to embark. It seems that of the 44 members of 3 Troop who fought in Normandy 27 of them were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Most sources say that there were only ever 88 members, although others claim it was 130, but they never fought as a single unit, being attached to various other units for specific roles. The whole story of 3 Troop was cloaked in mystery for very good reasons.

By 1945 Kurt was an acting Captain and commanding 3 Troop (Bryan Hilton-Jones having been captured whilst leading patrols ahead of the British lines as the Allies pushed the Germans back towards their own territory - but he survived). In the spring of that year Kurt was part of the force assigned to cross the River Aller and was sadly shot and killed by a sniper on 11 April 1945, less than a month before Germany surrendered. He was just 26 years old and was buried in woods near to the place where he died.

Kurt's original grave.
Kurt's original grave.
Image © Commando Veterans Association and licensed under this Creative Commons licence

Subsequently he was re-buried at Becklingen War Cemetery in northern Germany.

Kurt's final resting place in Becklingen War Cemetery (Grave 8.D.8).
Kurt's final resting place in Becklingen War Cemetery (Grave 8.D.8).
Image © Commando Veterans Association and licensed under this Creative Commons licence

Plaque about Kurt at the gate to Becklingen War Cemetery.
Plaque about Kurt at the gate to Becklingen War Cemetery.
Click image to enlarge.
Photo by David Lee. Image © Commando Veterans Association and licensed under this Creative Commons licence

ERICA GLASER

The path of Erica's life was a direct result of the fact that she did not come to England with her parents; instead she became involved with Noel and Herta Field. None of Erica's story makes any sense without knowledge of them and the world they moved in.

I am not including the whole saga of the Fields here - there is plenty of detailed material on the internet - and I shall be as brief as possible. Field was born in England in 1904, son of Herbert Haviland Field, a respected American scientist, and his English wife, Nina (nee Eschwege), whose father had originally been from Germany. Herbert and Nina spent the First World War years in Switzerland, where Herbert had been working; he died in 1921, whereupon Nina took her children to America. Noel was educated at Harvard and began a career at the US State Department. He became an anti-fascist by inclination and sympathised with the peace initiatives being promoted by the Soviets. From 1938 to 1939 he represented the League of Nations in Spain and this is how he became involved with the Glaser family, meeting them socially and discussing ways to get them out of the country.

Erica contracted typhoid in Spain and found Willy and Maria Therese in the camp near Perpignan. For reasons I do not entirely understand, Noel and Herta Field offered to 'adopt' Erica and take her to the US; she was 16 years old at this point, still ill and things were desperate. It may have seemed a good idea to Erica, even though her parents became upset and were against it, but events were moving so quickly now - it was already February 1939 and time was of the essence. Willy and Maria Therese got to England and the Fields took Erica to Switzerland, by which time war had broken out. Since Erica had missed so much of her education, the Fields sent her to a school in Zurich and once the Glasers were on their feet in England they sent money to her regularly.

Erica said herself (yes, I will tell you the source of all this quite soon) that she was not consciously a Communist but, like her brother, she was vehemently anti-Nazi and it seemed to her at the time that the Communists were doing the most to combat the Nazis. She was still in her teens and must have been influenced by the Fields, although she did not see much of them initially. However, in 1940 Field introduced her to a Bruno Goldhammer, who was a German Communist refugee: this led to a chain of meetings with other Communists. She told them all that she would like to help but was given little more than office work.

In 1944 she graduated from the University of Geneva and was then tasked with helping to smuggle German Communists back into Germany from Switzerland. What she did not realise at the time was that some of these people were agents working for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Before I continue, I have to emphasise that Erica's original overriding intention was to help the Communists to defeat the Nazis, but she was a very young woman moving in murky and dangerous circles. People were not what they seemed and a train of events was in motion that would almost end in her death. In this source I still have not revealed, she comes over as idealistic but nave about what she was getting into - way over her head, as it turned out.

In the summer of 1945 she was in Germany as an official member of the OSS, although it seems she did not know then that the OSS was basically a spying operation. When she found out she told the German Communists, who encouraged her to pass information back to them, which she did. Heaven only knows how she believed all this would end, but I am not sure that she thought it through at all. Eventually the Communists told her that she would have to leave the OSS, a decision she didn't understand, but she agreed anyway. After a visit to her parents in England at the end of 1945 she resigned from the OSS, became a German citizen and took an official position in the Communist Party. In time she got involved with a German Communist 'newspaper' and became increasingly frustrated at its anti-American stance. The essence of the problem was that the 'party line' was resolutely anti-American no matter what and, whilst she did not agree with everything the Americans were doing, she didn't like the hard-line Communist propaganda either.

In 1946 Erica had met and become engaged to Captain Robert Wallach, who was an executive officer for the American Military Government. The Communists did not approve and began to call her in for questioning. Eventually she decided to get out of Germany and the Communist Party.

Early in 1948 she heard that Willy was seriously ill and returned to Epsom to see him for what turned out to be the last time. Wallach followed and he and Erica were married at Epsom Register Office in June 1948, just before Willy died.

The next thing was for Robert to get her into the US, which did not seem to be a problem at first but, of course, it was. He resigned from the Army and they stayed in Paris while the formalities were undertaken; then, Erica was denied entry to the US because of her former Communist associations. He found it difficult to get work in Paris for the same reason and enrolled at the Sorbonne, existing on allowances from the Military. Erica picked up whatever work she could.

In 1949 Noel and Herta Field popped up in Paris and said they hoped to go and live in Prague. They did and soon afterwards Noel disappeared. Next, Noel's brother, Hermann, vanished from Poland. Herta ultimately went to the US consulate in Prague to make enquiries and she too disappeared.

In 1950 Erica did something that was both phenomenally stupid and very courageous. Leaving her husband and two young children safely behind her, she went to the headquarters of the Communist Party to ask previous 'colleagues' about the three missing Fields: HQ was in East Berlin. Having unsuccessfully tried to see a senior Party official whom she knew well, she was allowed to go, and then …
'I left the building. And I was already figuring out in my mind, I thought "My God, I made it. I'm going to get out and I'm going to get back to the hotel and I'm going to write a card to Bob," because we had arranged that I was going to send him a card right away, how long I intended to stay; and whether everything was all right.

"I am going to write to him that, unfortunately it didn't work and I am just going to have to stay until Monday."

I was just figuring that out in my mind when I heard steps behind me. And then I knew that was the end.

I didn't even turn around. And after a second somebody just put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Criminal police. Would you please come around the corner with me?"'
She was now in the hands of the Stasi (officially the Ministry for State Security), but you all know the connotations of the word and the logo says it all.

Emblem of the Stasi.
Emblem of the Stasi.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Erica was shunted around various East German prisons until, in December 1952, she was transferred to Lichtenberg Russian Prison, convicted of espionage and sentenced to death. You will have gathered already that she was not executed, since she is telling the story, but she was not out of the woods yet by a very long chalk indeed. In January 1953 she was taken to Russia for execution and held in a Moscow death cell for six months. The timing of this turned out to be highly significant and it saved Erica's life, if not her suffering.

By now Stalin's thirty year tenure in power was nearing its end; he was paranoid about opposition to his regime or any person or group which appeared to be a threat. He purged opponents and threats with rigged trials, torture and execution. Russian Jews were a particular group at risk and in 1952 thirteen members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, having suffered imprisonment and torture, were put on trial and sentenced to death. On 12 August 1952 all but two were executed - one died in prison soon afterwards and another was eventually released because of her value to science. This became known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. The executions took place at the notorious Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, contained within the headquarters of the KGB. In the previous prisons Erica had been interrogated, beaten, deprived of sleep and most other basic decencies of life, but when she reached Moscow she was not abused or interrogated, since she was waiting to be executed.

A fellow inmate of Erica's in one of the Russian prisons said this.
'After having again been questioned continuously for 12 nights running and being hardly able to stand up from fatigue, she was taken from one of the interrogations into the karzer one Whitsunday. (A karzer is a solid concrete cell with nothing in it.) After 16 days she was again released into the cell. Mrs Wallach was in a terrible physical condition, had been beaten black and blue, her face badly swollen. In addition, she was completely filthy, not having been given an opportunity to wash during the 16 days. Her wrists were badly swollen from handcuffs.'
Stalin died in March 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev emerged as leader from the ensuing power struggle. Khrushchev was no saint by a long stretch and years earlier he had been involved in Stalin's purges: however, he was attempting to build a more liberal Soviet state and Erica was one of those who was reprieved from the death sentence. But her ordeal was not over by any means: she was told that she would be sent to a labour camp for 15 years - Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. Erica was detailed to the heavy work of building roads and railway tracks, wielding a pick and shovel.

Vorkuta Gulag, as photographed in 2009.
Vorkuta Gulag, as photographed in 2009.
Photo by Oleg-2014 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are further images of Vorkuta online.

In December 1954 Erica was transferred to another Siberian camp and remained there, apart for a trip to Moscow for questioning, until September 1955, when she was taken to the Lubyanka Prison and informed that her case was being re-examined. This time, she said, matters were conducted properly and after ten days of questioning she was released and allowed to go to West Berlin, where Maria Therese hastened to meet her and took her back to Epsom.

Robert Wallach had returned to the United States with the children in 1950 and was completely ignorant of what had happened to his wife until, in 1954, he received a letter she had written from Vorkuta. After her release Erica was repeatedly denied a US entry visa, because of her Communist past, but her application was finally granted in autumn 1957, with the assistance of the then chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

I can now tell you the source of most of the material on Erica and her parents and it is a report by the Committee (HUAC-HQ-EBF-3721, released in 1958, and entitled The Erica Wallach Story. The document contains detail of what Erica told the Committee and explains the wider context (from the American viewpoint) of what was happening during that period. Well worth a read if the Cold War era interests you.

As for Noel Field, having disappeared in 1949 he was tortured and held in solitary confinement in Hungary. He, his wife and his brother were released in 1954. I am not going to say more about the Field family in this piece, since the business of spying in the Cold War era reads like something out of John Le Carré, and you are not always any the wiser who was on which side when you reach the end. Erica rejoined her family in Warrenton, Virginia and became a languages teacher at a local school; she died on 22 December 1993. Her home, with Robert and the children, had been in the Wallach family since the 1920s and is called Hopefield. It must have seemed an amazing and safe haven after all she had been through.

Hopefield, Warrenton Virginia in 2007.
Hopefield, Warrenton Virginia in 2007.
Photo by Jerrye and Roy Klotz via Wikimedia Commons.

Maria Therese was still listed in the phone book as a resident of Woodcote House in 1971, but apparently died in Warrenton in 1973.

Sources (where not cited in the text):

Further reading
  • Noel Field on the Spartacus Educational website
  • Light at Midnight by Erica Glaser Wallach (Doubleday 1967) - out of print but available second-hand

Researched and written by Linda Jackson © 2016