Light in the Dark

Holocaust Memorial Day, on January 27th, will this year mark exactly three quarters of a century since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops in 1945, a matter of months before the end of the Second World War in Europe. Of the estimated 1.3 million people who were interned at the camp, at least 1.1 million, mostly Jews, were murdered. There are many stories that could be told today, not least that of the remarkable survival of Newport’s Ron Jones, who died only last September aged 102, a captured British soldier who helped to form a football team at the camp and became the team’s goalkeeper. He told his own story, of course, in his poignant memoir The Auschwitz Goalkeeper (2013). For this post, though, I want to tell a very different story, a Jewish story.

Let us begin at the end. On 24 October 1942, Hartog Samehtini (known to the family as Harry) was deported from the Mechelen transit camp in Belgium on a train bound for Auschwitz. He was one of more than three hundred men, almost one hundred women, and almost seventy children, who were part of ‘Transport XV’, itself one of twenty eight such deportation transports which left Mechelen for Auschwitz between 1942 and 1944. On the manifest, now held at the State Archives in Brussels, Samehtini was recorded as the 175th name. The details about him are slight. He was a hairdresser by profession. He was born on 21 July 1917. And finally, the starkest detail of all, his place of birth: Cardiff. A photograph of Harry can be seen below, gathered as part of the remarkable Kazerne Dossin project in Belgium.

Prior to internment in Mechelen, Samehtini had been interned at the Les Mazures camp in the Ardennes, not far from the Belgian border, to which he had been transferred following his arrest in Antwerp earlier in 1942. Despite frantic attempts by Samehtini’s mother and sister to stress his British citizenship, even seeking the intervention of the Swiss consulate, there was nothing they could do to prevent either his arrest or his eventual deportation to the east. There is no record of what happened to Hartog Samehtini after the 24 October 1942 and investigations by the Red Cross after the war found no trace of him: there can be little doubt that he was murdered in Auschwitz sometime after his arrival. Hartog Samehtini remains the only recorded Welsh-born victim of the Holocaust.

But how did Harry come to be born in Cardiff at all? The Samehtini family were Dutch and both of Harry’s parents were born in the Netherlands: his mother Mina Roodenburg (1887-1979) in Amsterdam, where her parents were diamond merchants; and his father Joachim Samehtini (1889-1942) in Rotterdam. Joachim’s parents were also musicians. Joachim was sent to London by his parents before the First World War to train as a musician and it was there that he met and married Mina. Harry’s older sister, Roosje (known to the family as Rosie or Rosa) was born in London in 1911. Joachim was, as a result of his training and natural talent, an accomplished cellist; his brother, Leon was an accomplished violinist and a pupil of the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. For a time, Leon was the protégé of Dame Nellie Melba, a soloist with the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and a touring artist across much of Europe. By the 1920s, Leon had settled in the United States and taught at the Chicago Musical College (now part of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University). Amongst his many pupils was the violinist Aaron Rosand (1927-2019).

Marriage notice for Mina and Joachim, published in the Algemeen Handelsblad, August 1910

The earliest mentions of Joachim in the newspapers are in fact for the Proms Concerts for 1907 when he took the cello solo in Victor Herbert’s Suite for Cello and Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall. His review in the Daily Telegraph in particular caused something of a fuss in the Netherlands – the younger brother of the already famous Leon Samehtini was now coming into his own. The rest of the concert, conducted, of course, by Henry Wood and played by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, included the William Tell Overture, a suite from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. After a successful few years playing in venues and ensembles across London, Joachim moved to Cardiff in 1915 initially as a cellist in Arthur Angle’s orchestra. (Incidentally, Angle had his own instrument shop in the Cardiff arcades and much of his memorabilia can still be seen on the walls of Cardiff Violins in the Castle Arcade.)

After his contract with Angle was completed, Joachim took a job both in and conducting the ensemble at the Castle Picture Theatre in Castle Street and took on private teaching at his lodgings in Neville Street (the Samehtinis lived at number seventy). In adverts, patrons were reminded that ‘music at this cinema is provided by a grand augmented orchestra’ of some twenty musicians. Joachim established the cinema as one of the best in the city and he provided soundtracks to many of the well-known silent films of the period including those of Charlie Chaplin. In the war years, he was much in demand as a soloist in South Wales and played concerts in venues such as the Judge’s Lodging in Trealaw, at Bethania Chapel in Llwynypia, at the Theatre Royal in Barry, and at the workmen’s hall in Mountain Ash. By 1918, Joachim had moved on to the Imperial Cinema in Cardiff’s Queen Street and in 1919 left the city entirely to become the principal cellist of the Brighton Grand Orchestra. He returned to Cardiff only intermittently thereafter, mostly for one-off concerts. Harry was not yet two years old when the family left Wales to live in various parts of England.

The peripatetic nature of Joachim’s life in the 1920s, especially, placed noticeable strain on his marriage with Mina, and the pair separated in 1929. Mina even took Joachim to court in 1933 to secure a weekly maintenance allowance. The pair did not formally divorce until 1939.The circumstances of the marriage collapse can be found in the pages of the Northampton Mercury. At the time she applied for a maintenance order, Mina Samehtini was a patient at Creaton Sanitorium where she was being treated for suspected tuberculosis. The journalists painted her pathetically: ‘Mrs Samehtini, who had one of her feet in bandages, gave her evidence with a foreign accent. She took the oath in the Jewish fashion’. She then explained that she had been left destitute by her husband and that she had left him five years earlier when he departed on a music tour to Australia and South Africa. Mina went to live with her sister in Brussels. The pair did not reconcile thereafter.

In his testimony, Joachim told the story differently. Yes, he said, he had left for the southern hemisphere on tour but on his return to England, he had ‘nursed his wife to health from an illness in Brussels’. Then she had refused to join him when he moved to Ramsgate for work in 1930. Thereafter, he said, he had lived as if he were a single man. It was as a result of that decision that he got caught up as a co-respondent in a separate divorce case involving a Mr and Mrs Dodds. Magistrates sided with Mrs Samehtini and awarded her a weekly maintenance order of ten shillings. She was transferred shortly afterwards from Creaton Sanitorium to a hospital in London and was discharged as ‘cured’ in October 1933 after two and a half years of in-patient treatment. Less than three months later, the Samehtinis were back in court, with Mina demanding an uplift in her payments and Joachim claiming harassment. It was claimed in court that Mina had gone along to the Grand Theatre, Croydon, where Joachim was playing during the Christmas season, 1933, and had caused ‘a scene’ before being ejected from the premises. The purpose of which had been, in the words of Joachim’s solicitor, ‘to injure her husband in every possible way’. Mina refused to accept the terms put to her. Magistrates provided an uplift to thirty shillings in the hope that Mina would leave Joachim alone in future.

But it was not to be. In November 1934, Joachim applied for a reduction in the maintenance order himself on the grounds that his weekly earnings were no longer sufficient to be able to pay the sum. In a repeat of her earlier appearance at the theatre, Mina turned up at a theatre in Golders Green in June 1934 with a warrant for apparently unpaid maintenance allowance. A repeat of the fuss caused in Croydon in December 1933 prompted Albert Sandler, the violinist, musical director, and Samehtini’s employer, to fire the cellist shortly afterwards. Certainly, Joachim was out of Sandler’s employ by August 1934. By the time this phase of the case was heard in court, Mina had left England to live temporarily with her sister and brother-in-law in Antwerp (Albert and Vogeltje Delattre). In a letter to the court, Mina explained that she was in the Netherlands visiting her son but because of ‘the suspension of payments she could not return. She was destitute and relying on charity’. Magistrates once more sided with Mina and refused Joachim any reduction. Mina never returned to England and Joachim left for the Netherlands himself in March 1937. He settled in Amsterdam.

There are relatively few clues about Harry’s life amidst the chaos of parental fallout. Occasional reports in the newspapers point to a budding career not as a musician, like his father and grandfather, but as an actor. In 1932, for instance, he took the role of Sinbad in the annual pantomime at Langley Hall near Slough. The following year it was as Peter the Pindar in Babes in the Wood. He was also active in the local football team and in the village branch of the St John Ambulance. In the Samehtini family papers, held in Amsterdam, one of Harry’s school reports from this period survives, too, with the poignant observation made in 1931 that ‘in most subjects Samehtini desires to get on. But he lacks the will to do it. He must convince himself that life is a fight, and a great fight’. Harry left school in 1934 and moved, as per the newspaper accounts of Joachim and Mina’s court battle, to the Netherlands. In the turmoil of the marriage collapse, Harry had always sided with his mother.

Sometime before the outbreak of the war, Harry began training as a hairdresser at the Institute de Beauté run by Christian Verpoorten and his wife. This seems to have been a kind of apprenticeship and in surviving correspondence, Harry was clearly not very happy in Antwerp and keen to rejoin his family in the Netherlands or, at the very least, move in with his aunt and uncle (the Delattres). Yet, on the outbreak of war, Harry found himself stuck in Antwerp. In February 1941, the Verpoortens wrote to Mina to explain that Harry continued to live with them and was doing well in his job. Harry wrote himself a few months later to say much the same thing, although he expressed a wish to move out. Within a year, Harry had been arrested and interned. In his final letter, sent just a few days before his deportation, Harry asked for a balaclava to shelter his face from the cold. He never received it.

Surviving newspaper testimony, read alongside the family correspondence, suggests that in fact all was not entirely well in Antwerp and that Harry was perhaps more aware of his circumstances than could be expressed in letters subject to state censorship. In May 1940, Harry tried to escape from Belgium using the occasion of a business trip to Ghent to make a run for the coast – his likeliest target was the Ostend-Dover ferry. It would have been his last chance to return to Britain. A series of panicked letters appeared in newspapers the following month, paid for by his brother-in-law telling Harry to return home to Antwerp and that all was well, that he was missed by his family in Belgium and the Netherlands. Whatever the reason for his return, perhaps he had been unable to secure passage across the Channel to Dover, Harry did eventually make his way back to Antwerp. It almost certainly sealed his fate.

At the end of October 1940, the Military Occupation instituted the first of a wave of anti-Jewish laws which banned Jews from specific professions including the civil service, made indications of Jewish businesses a requirement, and forced all Jewish members to register with their local commune. Less than a year after Harry attempted to escape, Antwerp experienced its first pogrom: two of the city’s synagogues were attacked and burned, the home of the city’s chief rabbi was also attacked. At the end of May 1942, all Jewish residents were compelled to wear the Belgian variant of the yellow star. Little more than two months later, in August 1942, deportations began. Harry had only recently turned twenty five.

It is not clear whether Joachim knew what was going on with his son, although the situation in Amsterdam was no less secure than in Antwerp. Not long after his divorce from Mina was formalised, Joachim had re-married – his younger wife, Marie (1897-1942), was a pianist and the two regularly performed together. Perhaps the most significant musical initiative in which they were both involved was the creation in 1940 of the New Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra, the new home of the Jewish musicians dismissed from radio orchestras in the city as a result of the anti-Jewish legislation. The same legislation required that audiences be Jewish only and that the orchestra change its name, too, to more overtly reflect is origins. It became the New Jewish Chamber Orchestra. In both guises, it was conducted by Salomon Abas (1900-1943). The conductor was murdered at the Sobibor extermination camp following his deportation from Amsterdam in June 1943. The last concert played by Joachim and Marie seems to have taken place on 22 June 1942. They played Eric Coates’s 1911 work, Miniature Suite for Little Orchestra, and the rather more famous Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. Joachim took the cello solo in ‘The Swan’ and Marie shone in ‘The Aquarium’.

A month after that concert was played, the Nazi forces commandeered the Jewish Theatre, where the New Jewish Chamber Orchestra was based, and turned it into a deportation centre: the Umschlagplatz Plantage Middenlaan. Storage. Jews were summoned to report at the Theatre and its rooms quickly became a prison for those who responded to the summons and those who were arrested. On arrival, prisoners were registered and then kept at the theatre for days or weeks until transferred to transit camps before eventual deportation to the east. Joachim probably understood his fate, even before this. For a period in 1942, he was interned at the Schaarshoek work camp outside the village of Heino near Zwolloe in the northeast of the Netherlands. At some point, late in 1942, Joachim and Marie were arrested. This time they were deported to Auschwitz. She arrived there on 19 October 1942 and was murdered at an unknown date thereafter, Joachim did not. His fate was different. About an hour from Auschwitz, the train carrying Joachim and Marie came to a halt and a number of men and boys aged between fifteen and fifty were taken off before train continued to the camp.

Had Joachim been able to see the station name, he would have seen Koźle – Cosel, in German. This removal was a semi-regular occurrence and it was intended to provide additional forced labour for the steelworks at Malapane in Silesia (now called Ozimek, Poland). Joachim and those like him joined, as Hugo Service notes in his book Germans to Poles, ‘Russians, Latvians and even British prisoners of war’. As a musician in his early fifties, Joachim was not well suited to work in heavy industry, certainly not in the conditions effected by the Nazi war machine, and he died of exhaustion in mid-December 1942, about six weeks after he been taken off the Auschwitz transport. More than one hundred Dutch Jews were killed in this manner between August and December 1942. By the end of the year, the only survivors of Joachim’s branch of the Samehtini family were his ex-wife, Mina, and his daughter, Rosa (1911-2001) who had trained as an artist. She married the composer and lyricist Han Dunk (1909-1996) in Amsterdam in April 1939.

There is a happier note on which to end, however. One of the reasons that the magistrates often sided with Mina Samehtini during her court battles with Joachim for money was that he had made a number of broadcasts for the BBC and gramophone recordings. Through these we can still hear and, in some cases, see Joachim’s cello playing almost a century later. He made around twenty commercial records between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s for companies such as Piccadilly, Columbia, Metropole, and His Master’s Voice. That figure must be regarded as ‘at least’, since it does not include those recordings where Joachim was a member of the ensemble but not mentioned as a recording artist on the sleeve. There are two known film recordings from this period, too: for the DeForest Phonofilm company in 1927, together with the tenor Murray Stewart and the pianist James Bell, and for British Pathé in 1929. The latter recording featured the same trio that went on the Australian and South African tour: the Welsh soprano, Betty Bowen, and the pianist D. Lloyd Thomas. These can be viewed in the usual places.

Samehtini’s classical repertoire was traditional with a tendency towards Romanticism and included works by Elgar, Schubert, Gounod, and Schumann. But he was also a vaudeville and music hall musician (notably in the north of England) and had a popular repertoire, too, although he seems to have eschewed jazz. During those last, fateful years in Amsterdam, the repertoire turned darker and had, both of necessity and of desire, Jewish foundations. Ernest Bloch’s 1939 work, Baal Shem, for instance, which was performed in a cello transcription at the Jewish Theatre in Amsterdam in 1941, or Leo Smit’s 1937 Concertino for Cello and Orchestra. Smit was murdered at Sobibor in April 1943. Poignantly, one of the recordings Samehtini made for Metropole in the late-1920s was of ‘The Swan’. But for the moment, let me draw this story to a close with a recording he made in 1929 of Elgar’s Salut D’Amour. Released as Piccadilly number 403, it reveals a rich sound and a talent as apparent today as it must have been for audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. There are, after all, if it is not too trite a thought on which to conclude, some things fascism cannot exterminate.

Joachim Samehtini, Salut d’Amour by Elgar, Piccadilly #403, 1929

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