On 10 March 1933, respected Jewish Lawyer, Dr. Michael Siegel, was beaten half to death and forced to march through the streets of Munich with a sign around his neck. 88 years on from this event, his great-grandson, Ben, describes how the experience impacted his family and writes of his determination to ensure this painful family history is not forgotten.
Image: Ben's great-grandfather, Dr. Michael Siegel, as he was marched through the streets of Munich.
My grandmother, Bea Green, is getting older. She’s already old – 95 in March – and with that age comes a large set of life stories she tells me almost every visit. Whether it is her travels to Ceylon or reuniting with her parents to live with them in Peru, she never fails to recount her experiences in rich detail. Every few months I notice that one of these seems to drop out of circulation. If I ask her about one, she hasn’t told me for a while, she remembers most of the details with some effort. I know that she would never forget one particular event: how her father was beaten half to death and marched through the streets of Munich.
The account always begins the same. Dr. Michael Siegel, my great-grandfather was an established and respected Jewish lawyer in the city of Munich, Bavaria. Within the first few months of Nazi control of Germany, Jews were already facing increased discrimination. On the 10th March 1933, Michael got a call from a client and a friend of his: a fellow Jew and owner of a local department store, Max Uhlfelder, had been suddenly and unlawfully arrested, and sent to one of the first concentration camps: Dachau.
Michael immediately went to lodge a complaint to the police. Before the complaint was registered, he was advised to wait in a specific room. He was ambushed by a gang of Sturmabteilung, also known as the SA, or Brownshirts. With the rise of Hitler, this paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party had been converted into an auxiliary police force for the Nazi government - in other words, thugs. The Brownshirts immediately began beating him, bursting his ear drum, smashing out some of his teeth, among other things. They then cut off his trouser legs, and they wrote on a sign in German: 'I am a Jew, and I will never again complain to the police', which they hung around his neck. They then marched him through the streets of Munich in his tattered clothes, humiliating him before the public. While the Brownshirts passed by, an American photographer snapped a picture of the event.
As my great-grandfather and the Nazis reached their destination, the train station, the thugs took him into an alley and aimed their guns at him. 'You are now going to be done in', they laughed. But they did not fire, and walked away. After this, a bloodied Michael walked back toward the street to get into a taxi. The American photographer from before stopped him as he was about to get in, asking his permission to publish the photograph. Michael consented, and told the taxi driver to take him home. Later the photograph would appear in the New York Times, and other papers in Britain, Argentina, and France: one of the first internationally circulated images of Nazi antisemitism.
My grandmother, just eight years old at the time, had been in bed all day due to a cold. She heard the key in the door, and thought it was her mother. When nobody came into her room to check on her, she got up from the bed, and went to her parents’ bedroom. What she found when she entered, shocked her. Her father, battered and bloody, was in bed, desperately covering himself with his sheets from the confused gaze of his daughter. 'Wait till your mother returns,' he cried. She shut the door. Obscuring his face with the bedclothes is a detail Grandma never misses, and it pains me a little every time, to think of how they each felt, hurt, and confused by a government that was now starting to persecute them for who they were. My great-grandparents managed to escape the Holocaust in a stroke of luck, securing a visa to Peru, and Michael was the Rabbi of the Jewish community of Lima until he died there at the age of 97 on 15th March 1979.
I am so glad my grandmother tells me about her father. It is a painful history, but I nonetheless hope she repeats it every visit until she is gone. She is full of spirit, and she plans to retire from life at the very respectable age of 120, at least. My grandmother has instilled in me the importance of her father’s experience, and I can only hope that I am repeating it to my grandchildren when I am 95.
Ben is currently a student at Hampton School, in Middlesex.
The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.