Renate describes her family background. She talks about her mother’s premature death, her father’s arrest and the reason she was adopted by her mother’s sister and her husband. Her new ‘father’ was the eminent astronomer, Erwin Finlay Freundlich, and she soon found herself joining him and her aunt, first in Turkey and then Prague. 

INT: Today is the 20th of February 2014 and we’re here to interview Renate Mackay. Hello, Renate.

RM: Hello.

INT: Could we begin by asking where you were born?

RM: I was born in Cologne, or Köln am Rhein [in Germany]

INT: And when was that?

RM: 1931.

INT: And what was your name at birth?

RM: Renate Frederike Pütz.

INT: Could you tell us a little about your family?

RM: My mother, Elly Hirshberg, was the eldest of six [children].

                  10

INT: She had an unusual profession, didn’t she?

RM: Yes.She was born in 1886 Before the First World War  she had been a receptionist at a photographer’s and in fact she had established herself as a photographer in her own little studio, in Berlin.

INT: Which would be, I would have thought, very unusual for a lady to have a profession.

RM: It was, in ’13.  

INT: And she was married to a non-Jewish person, did you tell me?

RM: Yes. Do you want this little story or not?

INT: Yes, please.

RM: I don’t know how she came to be in Cologne.; One night some of her,developing, apparatus wasn’t working so she knocked on another door where there was still a light on.

                  20

 A gentleman came to repair it and, perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you this, but, as a thank you, she invited him for dinner. And I’m afraid my brother, my older brother, four years older brother, was a result of this. Right, in 1927 …she wanted, she wanted to have this child.  From another family relative, I was told she had established herself with a career, because in Cologne anybody who wanted to be photographed, a member of council or whatever, came to Elly Hirshberg. And so…she wanted to keep this child but Matthew Pütz was nice…actually he was a lot younger than her - but he said it was too much of a stigma for a child to be a bastard, so he insisted… they got married three days before my brother was born.

INT: I see.

RM: And, am I allowed to go a bit backwards and forwards?

                  30

INT: Yeah.

INT: A little.

RM: Yes, I would just like to say my adoptive father said, later, “You’re just like your mother – you can keep neither time nor money!”

INT: So tell us a bit about what happened…

RM: Because she wasn’t very good with her finances, my father took the keys away from her [the housekeeping keys. She went off to Berlin, with my big brother and he [her husband, Matthew Pütz] came after her, brought her back and, as I say, I’m the result of that.

INT: And then what happened to your mother?

RM: Oh, well in… 1933 there was to be a big march in Cologne.

                  40

It was just after Hitler came to power and she decided to take me out to the country until all this was over and on the way back to the station, it started to rain. She took off her jacket to keep me dry; she developed a cold and took to her bed and died of pneumonia.

INT: Oh dear.

RM: In 1933.

INT: And your father was left with, now, two young children.

RM: Yes, and unfortunately, I’m sorry, it’s really more important to point out that when she died her younger sister, who had been married in 1913, and had no children, came literally post haste to fetch my brother, whom she’d frequently borrowed, but left me behind.

                  50

Years later I asked why did you leave me? She said because her husband, who was Erwin Freundlich, quite well known astronomer….associated with Einstein. Anyway, he needed peace and quiet and children make noise. Just that.

INT: So you were left with your father.

RM: I was left with my father and his unmarried sister and his parents. And then after some time, after my mother died, my father went into his local pub. He was greeted with the words, I hate to say this, but he was greeted with the words, “You’ll be glad to be rid of your Jewish whore.”

And so he, I’m afraid, punched this person in a pub, which wasn’t a good idea so my father went to prison. Time passed. His sister, who was pushing me in a pram round the local park, started objecting because people were asking her if I was her bastard.

                  60

And the grandparents couldn’t cope. My aunt and uncle, the Freundlichs, had already taken shelter in Turkey, in 1933. So in 1935, he asked them, would they take me as well and asmy uncle was unable to go back into Germany; through the good offices of yet another sister who was in social work, she [Renate’s aunt] hired a nanny, who brought me from Cologne to Turkey in 1935.

INT: So you would have been very young.

RM: I was four.

INT: Which is very young.

RM: I remember only part of that journey in that there was a derailment suddenly. I mean I was asleep. It was in the night and I sort of fell out of the bunk and everything stopped. Much later, they must have got another train [engine] because we then moved on and the engine was lying there in the embankment. Anyway we made our way to…I have to look things up on the map.

                  70

INT: Yes.

RM: And I think it must have been Constanta on the Black Sea and got on to a boat, which we were also on overnight, and arrived in Turkey and I do remember my uncle and my brother were at the quayside. However, one of the reasons why my grandparents couldn’t cope with me was that I was a mewling, puking babe - so I was told. Anyway, OK, I arrived in the morning, came into the house where my aunt and uncle lived, and my brother, and I sat at the Kindertisch [little table]. And what did they put in front of me? A bowl of soup… and apparently I was a Suppen-Kaspar.

INT: What does that mean?

RM: Well there’s that book, ‘Der Struwwelpeter’[Der Struwwelpeter (1845) (or Shockheaded Peter) is a German children’s book by Heinrich Hoffmann]. You know, there was Ein Suppen-Kaspar in that. And I’m afraid I was…perhaps it was the sea voyage; perhaps it was the accident during the night…I was sick in the soup.

                  80

INT: Oh dear.

RM: For which (and I have never forgiven them, never forgiven my aunt) I was spanked. 

INT: Oh that’s so unfair.

RM: And put to bed. Years after I asked, why? – because the grandparents complained that I was a Suppen-Kaspar.

INT: And that means what? What does Suppen-Kaspar mean?

RM: Somebody who wouldn’t eat his soup.

INT: I see.

RM: I have ‘Der Struwwelpeter’ both in English and in German. I’ll show you the story.

INT: That is terrible.particularly, you know You were such a little girl and a terribly long journey. It’s very sad.

                  90

RM: Well I became devoted to the nanny. and they, My aunt only used me as a photographic model. She had shared a studio with my birth mother in 1913.

My Aunt K [Käte] had graduated from an art school doing batik and book binding and she moved in with my mother.  My aunt decided as she could see her sister earning a living, she [also]could. You’ve seen Penguin books? Well the Germany version of that is Tauchnitz.  And people might buy a Penguin edition but wanted it bound, right? So because…well there was this large ‘Mishpocha’…

INT: Large family.

RM: Yes a large family and strangely enough my aunt and uncle discovered they are related to two Caspary sisters.

So my uncle was one of seven and my aunt was one of six so there was a…

INT: Large family.

RM: Right where were we?

INT: You were telling…

100

RM: Oh, yes.

INT: What had your aunt to do with the German version of Penguin?

RM: Oh yes, when they lived together, my two mothers, obviously K learned quite a lot from Elly; In Turkey she had an Armenian maid who cooked and did the housework.

INT: Tell us some more about the books then please, Renate?

RM: Oh that - my…my aunt felt she could earn her living by binding these Tauchnitz editions and people could choose obviously leather and tooling and also the end papers. I still have one, very amusing, which she made for my uncle before they were married, and as my uncle was very, very tall,the inscription [dedication]was just “ Meinem Kleinem”.

INT: For my little one. .

                  110

INT: Was your uncle Jewish? Is that why they left ?

RM: Yes, yes.

INT: He was Jewish as well?

RM: Yes.

RM: Although, his father had married out. He married a Scottish lady from Gloucester…yes.

INT: Was he practising as a Jewish person?

RM: No.

INT: No?

RM: No, no.

INT: But he still had to leave Nazi Germany?

                  120

RM: Yes. I’m…I know…I’m sorry, jumping backwards and forwards…it’s just… important to think. Can we go back to just arriving in Turkey?

INT: It’s fine; it’s no problem.

RM: I was devoted to my nanny.

INT: Right.

RM: And my aunt basically ignored me. My brother went to a school, it’s funny – it was an American school just up the hill, and my aunt only used me as a photographic model. She had learned the skills from her sister. In the observatory that my father had established in Turkey; she could develop things there. And forgive me if I go on, but from her travels with my uncle, they had been to Java and Sumatra on eclipse expeditions, so she was very interested in everything in Turkey.

                  130

She wore a cloak and she had a reflex camera, which she sort of hid inside the cloak and I’m afraid she took photographs in one of the mosques in Istanbul. [Renate explained that as her aunt’s camera was a reflex camera her aunt could take a photograph without making it obvious what she was doing.]

As she also was very clever in handicrafts, she developed this photograph and then put it onto graph paper and made…she stitched them. [embroidery]

RM: I have two items of her work. Actually my daughter embroidered one of them and there was a cushion in my uncle and aunt’s house, which had, which was from a tile and because this cushion was always in that house…when I got married…I now have a cushion with that particular tile.

INT: So all taken from the tile which she had photographed in the mosque?

INT : Tell us a little about your uncle, if you could please?

                  140

RM: My uncle was Erwin Finlay Freundlich; the Finlay comes from his Scottish mother, from Cheltenham.

INT: I gather he was a very eminent scientist?

RM: He…yes he become associated with Einstein. Einstein says that Erwin Freundlich was the first person to offer to make experiments of eclipses to help to prove his theory. I mean he was the first person who volunteered In Germany, he became the Director of the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, which is now a world heritage site. And strangely enough, I happened one day to be in the Glasgow School of Art where there was a Mendelsohn, Erich Mendelsohn, exhibition.

INT: The architect?

RM: The architect, yes. [Mendelsohn designed the Einstein Tower]

                  150

And going along the walls there was sort of what you call explanatory panels and I looked at one and I thought, that’s funny, that looks like Erwin’s writing, and it was. It was my father…I’m sorry - Erwin, my uncle, [who] later became my adoptive father.

INT: Yes.

RM: Who had met Erich Mendelsohn through Erich Mendelsohn’s wife, Luise Maas, who was a cellist and my uncle was learning to play the cello. That’s the connection between Erwin and Erich Mendelsohn. Luise Mendelsohn and Kate Freundlich were invited fifty years after the building of the Einstein Tower for the…whatever the celebrations, but both ladies decided they were in their eighties and didn’t want to go.

I’m sorry to digress but in 19…93, I happened to be in Berlin and, the Wall having come down, decided I wanted to go to Potsdam and arrived at the gate of this scientific park.

                  160

 And at the gate I mentioned that my father had worked there and so the gate man gave me first of all a leaflet and told me which way to go, so I went…I think he rang up and so the director met me and I was totally gob smacked when I entered, because on one wall there was a wood cut by another famous German…now I have to think hard…I’ll come back to what his name was…[Max Pechstein] It was a woodcut, just of the head of Erwin on that wall, and on the other wall was an enormous photograph of Erwin sitting on the packing cases of his instruments waiting to go, getting ready to go, on one of these eclipse expeditions to the Far East, Java and Sumatra. But that was ’93 and he’d left Germany in ’33.

INT: My goodness. You must have been proud.

RM: Gob smacked.

                  170

 Not only though…the director said there are all kinds of footpaths and one of these footpaths was called the, ‘Freundlich Weg’[Way].

INT: Amazing.

RM: Some years later my son, with his wife and two gorgeous daughters, went also to visit it and so my daughter-in-law gave me this photograph of them standing underneath Freundlich Weg and she said she captioned this photograph, ‘In the Family Way’.

INT: That’s great.

RM: I’m sorry I digress.

INT: No, that’s fascinating. Let’s go back to Turkey in 1937, I think you said that that’s when you had to leave, is that right?

RM: No we didn’t have to leave; no, no, no.

                  180

He was experiencing difficulties and anyway the German speaking university in Prague, the Charles University, was looking for an astronomer, who could establish yet another observatory and department of astronomy. And strangely enough the man who was in charge of interviewing or finding these people was somebody called Wenzel Pollak who was also associated with Einstein. Anyway, he wrote to a whole lot of people, some Nobel Prize winners, and there were three people short-listed for this post in Prague and they all came down in favour of Erwin Finlay Freundlich. So he was offered the job. However, we then had German citizenship - he couldn’t go back so close to Germany without some guarantee of protection. We became Czech citizens before we even set foot in Czechoslovakia and to digress even further…

                  190

All during the war my father…there was now a Czech government in exile - and my father had to go down there [to London] every two years to get a fresh stamp on his passport and in this course of time he met the young Masaryk and also Beneš who became, for a short time, became the President of Prague [President of the Czech Government in exile]… And Beneš would come and visit the observatory in St. Andrews. [Renate corrected this last point and said Beneš came only once to St Andrews]

INT: We’ve jumped a wee bit.

RM: Yes.

INT: Let’s go back then.

RM: All I was trying to say was that, if I may, my aunt only used me as a photographic model, when there was film left in the camera, and there’s one very cute photograph where I have been woken from my rest and I’m sort of standing there dreamy eyed.

                  200

Just so she could finish the reel and go off and develop it.

INT: So tell us about Prague then, did you actually go to Prague then?

RM: Yes, in ’37.

INT: Right and how long were you there?

RM: I became six, which is the, the normal school entry age ‘sur le continent’,what Jimmy Young would say). And so I went to school and what did I get? First of all I got measles.

INT: Measles was quite dangerous actually.

RM: Well it started slowly and my father, being at the university, of course, asked various other medical professors to come and look and somebody found the Koplik spots inside my mouth, which were the first identification.

                  210

So I was barely finished with the measles when I developed whooping cough and then I whooped and I whooped until…my mother got me up because there were no more blankets for my bed. So…

INT: Eventually did you get to school?

RM: Yes, yes.

INT: And by that time could you speak a little Czech?

RM: No, no. I only have one sheet of my school report, which was just sort of the signing off because we were leaving to go to Scotland.

INT: So how long did you attend school for?

RM: About a year, but most of it having measles and whooping cough

Listen to the testimony

Links to other testimonies from Renate Mackay

Creative Commons

Unless otherwise stated, the content on gatheringthevoices.com is available to re-publish under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

Please check our Terms of Use for details on what is allowed when using our material.