First meetings with future parents-in-law can be nerve-wracking experiences. Liselotte’s introduction to her fiancé’s father and mother could hardly have been a more difficult experience, greeted as she was with overt hostility. As far as Mrs Marshall was concerned, Liselotte – being foreign, Jewish, a former tuberculosis sufferer and a “cripple” – was an utterly unimaginable match for Peter, her only child. The visit, over the weekend of the 3rd to 5th September 1953, to Peter’s parents at his childhood home in Maidstone, Kent, was forever etched in Liselotte’s memory, an experience that helped colour her feelings towards England, the country where she would go on to live most of the rest of her life.
I had always known that Liselotte (my mother) had, at least early on, endured intense animosity from Peter’s (my father’s) mother. “You’re a Jew. You’ll understand this: how much money will you accept for not marrying Peter?”, asked Mrs Marshall – or at least this is what Liselotte would often claim had been said. Similarly, I remember being told by my father that he had been offered a car if he agreed to break off the engagement with “the Jewess”. These supposed recollections fitted exactly with what I knew of the prejudices held by that particular grandmother. Even so, I was also well aware how, over the course of time, memories can change, fade or be embellished. Just maybe my parents, especially my mother, had exaggerated.
Last year – two years after my mother died – a family friend in the U.S. gave me a bundle of letters that Liselotte had written in the 1950s and 1960s. One of these letters (written a day or two after her first weekend with Peter’s parents) was sent to a group of friends in the U.S. This letter was accompanied by a much shorter one, in French, for one these friends. They record Liselotte’s overwhelmingly negative first impressions of England and the English, as well as her intense feelings of alienation. These were clearly not happy encounters and it is fair to say that her feelings towards what would be her adoptive country did not, over the following decades, develop into ones of fondness. While Liselotte’s letters do not mention Mrs Marshall’s bribery attempts, as a near-contemporary account of their meeting, they certainly support her later memories.
* * *
Liselotte’s life and journey to England were far beyond the experiences or imagination of both Mr and Mrs Marshall. She had been, in succession, a rather privileged health sojourner – and then a destitute refugee – in Switzerland, a stateless “Displaced Person” in the U.S. and an immigrant in post-war England, where she arrived three weeks short of her thirtieth birthday.
Born in 1923 into a prosperous German-Jewish family, as an infant Liselotte contracted tuberculosis, one of the most feared illnesses of the time. Almost as much to protect the family and community from the disease as to find a cure for her condition, when Liselotte was three years old she was sent by her parents to a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps . During occasional periods of remission, Liselotte would return, for a few weeks, to the family in Usingen, a small town in the Taunus mountain range north of Frankfurt, for short stays. Her parents – Siegfried and Clara Rosenberg – would visit her at the clinic in Leysin as often as possible, visits that their daughter would come to dread. Her last trip home was in 1937, by which time Germany was firmly under Nazi control, a regime that Usingen seemed to embrace with enthusiasm. After a group of children, chanting “Jewish cripple”, hurled stones at a limping Liselotte, she was hurriedly returned to what was still believed to be the safety of Switzerland.
Siegfried and Clara remained in Usingen until soon after the Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – pogrom of November 1938, by which time the family had lost their home and most of their friends and relatives had fled. The couple initially moved to Frankfurt, finding an apartment a few streets away from where Clara’s beloved oldest sister, Melanie, lived. There, they did their best to live discreetly while they sought a country that might grant them sanctuary. The U.S., where some Usingen Jews had already found refuge, was their preferred destination, but visas were also being pursued for other countries, with Uruguay seen to offer the best hope of success. To prepare himself for survival in North American exile, Siegfried intensified memorising the vocabulary listed in the Tausend Worte Englisch series of booklets that he carried with him everywhere.
One of Siegfried’s and Clara’s applications was successful just in time: in May 1941 they were issued with U.S. visas. Within days they purchased from the government travel agency a package that included train and ship tickets and accommodation for their “flight” from Germany, paid the despised emigration taxes and surrendered their few remaining valuables and household possessions. Travelling via France and Portugal, they arrived in New York City on June 13th, a few months before the first deportations of Jews from Frankfurt – including Melanie, her husband Camille and their daughter Anneliese – to the ghettos, killing fields and death camps of the East.
In 1946 Liselotte left Switzerland to join her parents – by now virtual strangers to her – in New York. She learnt English, went to the city’s Hunter College and then pursued graduate studies at Yale. It was there where she met Peter, a student from England. After he accepted a lectureship at Bristol University, in 1953 he returned to England, with Liselotte soon after following him across the Atlantic for a marriage that they expected to take place later in the year.
* * *
When Liselotte’s mother was told that her future son-in-law was not Jewish, she became hysterical, seeing this as unimaginably shameful. Clara was born and brought up in Ettlingen, a small town on the edge of the Black Forest, where such “mixed” marriages were virtually unknown. In contrast, Liselotte’s father accepted the news with a sense of pragmatism: he had given up on any hopes that he once had that she would marry a Jew and instead he was simply relieved that someone – anyone – would want to marry his troublesome daughter. In any case, unlike his wife, Siegfried had grown to accept that marriage arrangements in New York were often quite different to those he had been used to back in Usingen. And “Goys”, it seemed to him, were not too fussy. Increasingly unwell, by this point he was simply relieved that his daughter “was taken care of” – that she had found a potential husband. As it happened, Siegfried died less than two months before Peter and Liselotte married, while Clara would come to accept – and even love – her son-in-law.
* * *
Whereas Liselotte merely had to put up with an explosion of emotions from her mother and dismissive shrugs from her father, she faced far worse with Peter’s parents – in particular from his mother, Edith.
From a line of Kent publicans, Mrs Marshall (as Liselotte first called her future mother-in-law) had spent her entire life in Maidstone, the administrative centre of the south-eastern county dubbed “the garden of England”. Until she was introduced to Liselotte, Mrs Marshall had in all probability never met a foreigner or Jew – or, worse still, a foreign Jew. In contrast, Peter’s father, Don, had slightly more experience of the wider world. He was born in London and as a child moved to various places in Kent with his insurance salesman father. For almost all of his working life, he had been employed by the Maidstone & District bus company, starting out as an apprentice draftsman and eventually becoming the chief engineer. His work took him across Kent and Sussex, to London and, occasionally, to the Midlands to inspect new vehicles and automotive parts.
Both Mr and Mrs Marshall came from fairly humble lower middle-class backgrounds, and together they would climb up a few notches up the rather subtle English social pecking-order to become solidly middle class with the associated snobberies and material trappings. By the time Peter was eleven years old, they had purchased a new-build four-bedroom detached house with a large garden (with impeccably trimmed lawns) in a fairly affluent Maidstone suburb. Mr Marshall drove company cars of levels of prestige appropriate to his increasingly senior management positions. And they enjoyed their coastal holidays, alternating each year between the same two or three Sussex and Dorset resorts. (Once, they holidayed in northern England, but not for a moment did they ever consider crossing the Channel to visit nearby France – floating such an idea would have been seen as just as absurd as suggesting that they travel to “Darkest Africa”.)
Although Edith and Don had both left school at the age of 14, they were proud that their “bookish” son attended the highly competitive Maidstone Grammar School and that, prior to being sent to India for military service, he had secured an Oxford University scholarship place. Mr and Mrs Marshall believed that all this would serve Peter well for a management career (Dunlop was praised for offering sound prospects) and, despite the passage of time, they maintained a hope that he would marry Rosemary, the next-door neighbours’ daughter.
* * *
Liselotte arrived in England on 28 August 1953, travelling from New York, via Le Havre, to Southampton on the Île de France steamship. Initially she stayed with friends and relatives in London, while Peter returned to his childhood home in Maidstone. In September he moved to Bristol to start his new job, with Liselotte joining him later in the year, although they did not live together until they married. This was Liselotte’s first time in Europe since leaving Switzerland with “Stateless” travel documents seven years earlier. Now she was free to travel as an American citizen, the holder of a newly-issued green passport. Liselotte would remain an American for only a few years, until the U.S. authorities rescinded her citizenship – the second time in her life that she was denaturalised.
After her miserable introduction to England, Liselotte spent a month in Germany – a country that she had not set foot in since she was a child and where she had absolutely no personal connections – to finalise her claim for a German restitution payment. From there she travelled to Switzerland, where she could once again enjoy being with friends. Rather reluctantly, Liselotte returned to England in November and on 23rd December she married Peter in Bristol. Mr and Mrs Marshall did not attend the wedding.
* * *
Over the years, I have read hundreds of emigrants’ letters. In some ways Liselotte’s letters are comparable to those from nineteenth-century emigrants in South America whose lives I have studied. Some of the most vivid accounts are written by arrivals straight off the boat. They can be excited, fearful or hopeful. Their first impressions are often crude, comparing – for better or worse – their new country with the one that they have left behind. That said, rarely are writers as entirely negative about their new home as Liselotte was about England – those kinds of feelings tend to come later, when the novelty wears off and the realities and challenges of life in an alien environment strike home.
Here, writing to friends, Liselotte refers to certain aspects of the U.S. that she liked, her immediate dislike of England, her dread of returning to Germany and her desire to visit Switzerland, probably the only country that she ever felt a positive (albeit complicated) emotional attachment towards. Only very obliquely does she refer to her parents she left behind in New York. If it was not for Peter, she would leave England and return to the U.S. in an instant.
Still, Liselotte did find a way to survive England. She largely surrounded herself with foreign friends whether African students, central European refugees or American, European and other immigrants and visitors. Wherever she lived in the country, she always tried to understand her English neighbours. But whenever Liselotte could, she would return to Switzerland and the U.S., while in her seventies she developed new friendships in Germany, a country that she only really began visiting after her semi-autobiographical novel – Die verlorene Sprache (Tongue-Tied) – was published in Frankfurt in 1997.
Clara Rosenberg (née Mayer): born Ettlingen, 1894; died Manchester, 1987.
Siegfried Rosenberg: born Usingen, 1886; died New York City, 1953.
Liselotte Marshall (née Rosenberg): born Giessen, 1923; died London, 2017.
Edith Kitty Marshall (née Goodbody): born Maidstone, Kent, 1895; died Manchester, 1985.
Robert Donald Marshall: born London, 1901; died Cooden, East Sussex, 1977.
Peter Donald Marshall: born Maidstone, 1926; died London, 2008.
No date is given, but from the context of this and subsequent letters, it was most likely written on Tuesday 8th September 1953. Liselotte spent the weekend of Friday 3rd to Sunday 5th September getting to know the Marshalls at their Maidstone home.
c/o Dr. Altmann
352 Finchley Road
London N. W. 3
I may as well write a collective letter to New Haven, at this stage, because there is not a thing I want to tell which I wouldn’t want to be read by all of you. Besides, I would repeat myself if I wrote separate letters – and I may as well describe my “impression” of England (if one can call it such) at once…. At this stage I need a psychiatrist so please take considerations…. Also I am drugged. They feed me sleeping pills here (my cousin is a doctor and so is his wife and daughter) so that I can stand the past and present and future strain as well as humanly possible.
…. I miss you all terribly. I miss the houses without hedges and people with smiles. I miss the moral sunshine and the indifference of where one comes from. Most of all I wish the hell I was at Yale or anywhere but this goddam country and its horrible stuffiness. Mind you that for once I hate everybody but my own family members. I never thought that I’d reach that stage, but it’s true. I am living in the home of a second cousin – German Jewish refugees – the intellectual kind (Eléonore, you know what I mean). They are quiet, delicate, gentle and intelligent and let me do whatever I want. Although they all are in the medical profession, they never speak shop but have many interests besides. He is an excellent pianist, so that that there is music – and good music, at that – all the time. But then it seems an island in the midst of an island. What a country “this England” is. But I better start from the beginning.
First of all some information. I shall go to Germany (which they say is worse than here) around the 20th of this month. There I shall bury myself in a small town in the Schwarzwald [Black Forest], keep on taking masses of pills and hope for the best.
The only place I would like to go to now is Switzerland, but I don’t think I better do too much traveling before I recover and besides, I don’t have any money. Still, I shall go to Zurich at the first chance I get.
Now listen – this is what happened so far…. I travelled with two sweet little McCarthiists from Wisconsin who were going to Europe (every damn country) for four months on 200 dollars! They were alright. As a matter of fact, it couldn’t have been better because I had the cabin practically for myself except in daytime, which is just as well because one spends most of the time on deck. They had a very busy nightlife with a couple of French airmen returning home…. I met a lady – a teacher from Bradley who is a friend of Austin Warren. She went to England on a sabbatical and had a perpetual sneer about everything…. and a lovely little daughter of ten. I may see her one of these days…. Then I met Peter. It was good. He had heard so many horrible things about me in the meantime that he had to reassure himself….
Monique’s mother, having refused to have me stay with them (no doubt on account of my change of faith), pushed me on to a niece, a girl I know already for 17 years. Gwen, a real English girl, is married now to a stuffy German refugee. It turned out rather badly. They are married for two years and have a beautiful apartment in one of the most exclusive parts of town – decorated in the most expensive modern taste. As it was so terribly perfect, I became to doubt whether I really cared for modern things after all – I much rather live surrounded by orange crates and clashing colors than in the midst of this perfection. I didn’t dare to use an ashtray or the John…. I got a moral lecture whenever I did or said something “too American.” Yes – I am 200% American!… This included my once using the telephone without asking first (she was out) and remarking in all innocence that I thought English furniture much more solid but less graceful than American. Also I criticized styles of clothes – which is dreadful except for the Italian and French and American fashions one meets! Well, it was all very bad. England is the most beautiful country on Earth, I was told, and America the worst. Americans are materialists, English only interested in things of the spirit. This was told to me over a rotten meal because meat being so expensive isn’t really served to guests. When I left I was woken up and asked for the keys (I left at 12 and it was not yet 8). I wrote my bread and butter letter with relish thinking it was the first and last they saw of me. Yes, [Gwen’s husband] spoke perfect Etonian English, but when he got angry at my Americanisms, it became Berlinese-Jewish. Peter got along better than I.
There is something to be said about England and that is the gardens. They are more beautiful than anything I ever saw in America. But even that is stale. Flowers, like people, are to be seen by the neighbors and one’s good taste admired. But with this I come to my second chapter – Peter’s parents.
I went there last weekend. Not that I wanted to, but Peter had begged me to. He hoped so much of it. I did not, but I went to please him, expecting the worst. It was worse still than I thought it could be. From the train on, my legs slowly turned to rubber and once I stood before the Marshalls’ house everything blurred.
The door was opened by a woman in tears who, at the sight of me, gave a piercing shriek saying: “You subhuman cripple you – don’t marry my Peter. I don’t want him to marry someone as crippled as you, my Peter, my only son, my boy.” Then she was taken up by her husband, a gentle, kindly man – a bit helpless, infinitely sad. I myself became something of a statue. I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move. Peter – I have never seen him more clumsy than with his parents. And I do understand now many things I didn’t before. It went on when she had relaxed a bit.
Apparently during the week Peter was with me in London she went practically mad; she attacked her husband once. Well, when she calmed down I was told in a mad kind of way: “Peter had the most brilliant career and now you spoil it.” I was told that all the things I was and did an English girl would never do. An English girl wouldn’t leave her parents to marry – an English girl was not heartless and selfish and so on. Mr. Marshall at one point even thought it too much and took me by the arm, into the garden (the backyard with the hedge the only place outside of the house the neighbors wouldn’t see me) and showed me everything. I shall never hate him. He is Peter without education, you know. All through the days I stayed (from Friday to Sunday) he made an immense effort to be kind and try to treat me as a human being. His wife, on the other hand, suffered too much to look at me – the cripple. Whenever I made a step, she cried. It was perfectly horrible. Never, not even in Switzerland, have I met such personal cruelty.
I wanted to leave, but again Peter begged me to stay. I did. But do you know what it is like? I felt the only place I could sit down was the ground – not even there. And then one night I got terribly sick and a fever. I woke up Peter – I wanted to leave, but I stayed. The next day I was treated with perfect English civility…. I was made to understand that Jewish people’s necessity to move around was evil – good is to stay and be rooted. Unhappiness of the uprooted is evil – not a condition, but a moral failure. Worst of all, changing one’s religion is even more evil. And here is the core of everything. For the first time I met the horror of lack of religion of any kind. The moral shell without center – Victorianism – respectability, but nothing, nothing else. In the meantime, Peter had to listen to such things as: “You belong to me, not to her.” Christianity is evil too…. Only propriety is good. No wonder Peter always looked dishevelled. He showed me his room: a museum piece: a bed with satin cover, a wash basin, a chair and a bookshelf. No desk, nothing. Remember Peter reading in the midst of the greatest noise? Well, if you saw the condition under which he has to work you would be horrified. He is a child and nothing but a child. When I told this to my cousin, he replied rather sarcastically: “Gell, Freud hat doch recht gehabt?” [“Freud was right, don’t you think?”]
The sexual angle is also something. Eléonore – don’t sneer – it all is so simply awful that there isn’t even the pretence of shame. The thought [that they have] that Peter is to lose his virginity to me is horrible.
And this is it. There is a lot more to say. For instance, that Mrs. Marshall is shouting: “I wish you had died an honorable death in the war, not with that kind of girl.” When finally I was put into the train, everything went upside down and a kind of a fat peasant woman remarked: “Lady, are ye fainting?” But I recovered. And with the help of 5 pills I even managed to sleep. Next day Peter called up (yesterday) and told me his mother had changed her song now to the perpetual invalid. I knew it. It is simply a matter of concentration. Also, apparently I am too well dressed – which means Peter won’t be able to dress because I shall use up all his money.
You wonder why he stays? So do I. At times I feel simply like slipping off, buy a return ticket and let the whole Marshall family rot in their mess. But there are other times – and they are my more lucid ones. Peter has a wonderful father who is the one to suffer from it all and he is the one Peter cannot let down. This emotional hysterical blackmail, this one can take, but the horrible sadness of a man whose life seems to break down, this one cannot take. Life – a house in midst of a garden and a hedge around it all, a spiritual and physical hedge. Dottie, don’t tell me your mother is like that. She has moved from one state to another when she got married. But Peter’s mother has never left Maidstone.
I shall see Bob Smith over the weekend. If I asked him, he no doubt would come sooner. But I may as well study life first alone. Going to England is like turning the clock backwards. For God’s sake Eléonore, don’t go to Europe if France is the same. You don’t seem to know anymore what it is like. I forgot. Or else even Switzerland is better. The terrible thing about the Marshalls is that there isn’t the slightest feeling of shame. They are right and I am wrong. Peter belongs to her – I am subhuman and subhuman cripples don’t marry nice promising boys. It is so simple.
You no doubt wonder why I care so much about it all. I do too. But if you saw Peter, if you had been called to your face all those things…. I even wonder whether I ever will be able to believe in myself again. I feel so utterly rotten.
Monique is good to have. And so are the other foreigners I know. As for the English….God forbid!
But as I look around here it isn’t all black. This house has a peculiar style of its own. Nothing is striking and yet it is there. Things are not particularly good – they just are there in a plain and quiet kind of way. One feels they don’t matter really. Their wealth is elsewhere. One feels they could leave and carry on away from here. You know what I mean, Eléonore? I pray that I never become a slave to things. You are all welcome to our floors once we have a roof of our own. Don’t expect anything fancy. After seeing the Marshalls’ and Gwen’s places, I have no opinion left on decoration. As long as there is a typewriter to keep in touch with friends and somehow a place to keep them – who cares.
Peter sends you his love. Write us – he needs it almost more than I, you know. I never had those kinds of roots so that it isn’t so hard. Poor Peter. Sooner or later we shall come back.
Dottie, I shall ask Don Olson (a friend of Bob’s, here on a fellowship) to take a watch for you. If he accepts I shall get you a nice moderate priced one.
Write –– and never, never turn English in any way. Please. To hell with propriety ––
All my love to all of you,
Note: An English translation is provided below the French original.
c/o Dr. Altmann
352 Finchley Road
London N. W. 3
Je ne t’écris pas une lettre séparée pour la simple raison qu’il n’y a rien de séparé a dire sauf que je me sens malheureuse. Je viens de téléphoner à la mère d’Allain. Elle a l’air gentille. Je suisinvitée pour le déjeuner chez elle. Quel-qu’un qui parle français!
Je me suis attendu un peu à tout cela. Mais tu sais, pas d’une maniere aussi cruelle et basse. Je ne m’attendais pas a entendre en face des insultes pareilles. J’ai cru que la proprieté anglaise ne permetterait pas cela. Je me demande si Peter et moi vraiment nous marrions. Je suis sure qu’elle va tout essayer ce qui est en son pouvoir pour nous empêcher. Et tu sais, ses moyens sont affreux, surtout que le pauvre père en souffre tant. Tu sais, c’est une femme qui jamais rien eu de triste, on a l’impression – tout le monde fait ce qu’elle veut. Elle n’a pas d’amis, personne sauf son grand amour – Peter. Malgré sa considération des voisins, elle leur tappe dessus du matin au soir et je suis certaine qu’eux de leurs côté ont font autant.
On verra ––. Tu sais, ou il faudrait que nous marrions tout de suite, ou pas du tout. A Noël elle va certainement essayer de commettre suicide. Quelle sale vie.
Je t’aime bien toi,
* * *
c/o Dr. Altmann
352 Finchley Road
London N. W. 3
I’m not writing you a separate letter for the simple reason that there is nothing separate to say except that I feel unhappy. I just phoned Allain’s mother. She seems kind. I’m invited for lunch at her place. Someone who speaks French!
I expected a little of all this. But you know, not in such a cruel and low manner. I didn’t expect to hear such insults in front of me. I thought English propriety wouldn’t allow it. I wonder if Peter and I really are getting married. I’m sure she will try everything she can to stop us. And you know, those means are awful, especially since [Peter’s] poor father suffers so much. You know, she’s a woman who has never experienced anything sad, it seems – everyone does what she wants. She has no friends, no one except her great love – Peter. Despite her consideration of the neighbors, she criticizes them from morning to night and I’m sure that they on their side did the same.
We’ll see ––. You know, or we should marry right away, or not at all. At Christmas she will certainly try to commit suicide. What a grubby life.
All my love,
 Liselotte was staying with a cousin Hannah Altmann, her husband Manfred Altmann and their daughter Eva. They had settled in London after arriving in England from Berlin soon after Hitler gained power in 1933. At the time of Liselotte’s stay, the family were living in a house on Finchley Road, West Hampstead, an area with a strong presence of German, Austrian and other central European refugees.
 Eléonore Zimmermann was one of Liselotte’s close friends at Yale, a friendship that lasted for the rest of Liselotte’s life. She was the daughter of a German refugee father and a French mother. After years living in France, North Africa, Italy and Switzerland, she and her parents arrived in the U.S. shortly after the end of the war.
 The reference to “This England” is from Shakespeare’s Richard II: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
 Referring to Joseph McCarthy, a Republican U.S. senator from the state of Wisconsin and anti-communist demagogue.
 Adjusted for inflation, $200 would today be the equivalent of less than $2,000 – that is a travel allowance of $500 per month.
 Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.
 Austin Warren (1899–1986) was a distinguished American literary scholar, at this time a professor of English at the University of Michigan.
 Monique Weil was one of Liselotte’s first friends in America; they met in 1947 at Hunter College, while fundraising for refugees and displaced people in Europe. Monique’s family was also Jewish (her mother British and her father French) and for safety she was sent to Australia during the war. On her way home to England, she passed through the U.S. and decided to stay there. Monique and Liselotte remained close friends until Liselotte died.
 Liselotte and Gwen were treated for some time at the same tuberculosis sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland.
 Alfred (Gwen’s husband) was actually born in England but spent his early years in Germany.
 Highgate, in North London.
 Although Alfred spoke English with what could be considered “Received Pronunciation”, he retained a faint German accent, becoming more noticeable when he was animated.
 Unfortunately, Liselotte and Peter never knew the full level of Mrs Marshall’s sanctimony. Peter’s parents married at the end of November 1925; he was born on 5 July 1926. (There was never any suggestion that Peter was born prematurely.) Wedding anniversaries were not celebrated or even mentioned in passing. The marriage appeared to have been rushed: only Edith’s mother and Don’s sister attended the wedding ceremony.
 “Dottie” – Dorothy Doyle – was a friend of both Liselotte and Eléonore at Yale. The three remained close until Liselotte died in 2017 and Dorothy died in 2018.
 Moving between Arkansas and Louisiana.
 From Seattle, Bob Smith was, like Peter, a Yale history doctoral student.
 Also from Seattle, Don Olsen was, like Peter and Bob, a history doctoral student at Yale. He remained a close friend of Liselotte’s until he died in 1997.