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October 25th 2000

‘ I LIKED THE HITLER YOUTH’


Renee Goddard’s father was Jewish but she chose to join Germany’s Hitler Youth. Maureen Paton reports.


Renee Goddard has led a strangely dislocated life. The daughter of the leader of the Communist faction in Hitler’s Reichstag, she came to England in 1934 as an 11-year old German-Jewish refugee, was raised as the foster sister of the radical lawyer Ben Birnberg, found herself interned in Holloway Prison as an enemy alien at the age of 17 and later became one of the first women executives in British broadcasting.

  Nothing, however, has been quite so extraordinary as the time she hid her half-Jewishness within Hitler Youth for a year. At the age of ten, she was the only child in her street chosen to join  the guard of honour that greeted Hitler in September 1933 when he visited Linden, a working-class district of Hanover. There Renee, born Renate Scholem in 1923, had been billeted since babyhood with her maternal Christian grandparents while her mother Emmi worked full-time for the Communist Party’s central committee and looked after Renate’s elder sister Edith. By the beginning of the Thirties, it was felt prudent for Renate to take her grandparents’ surname of Wiechelt to hide her race.

  Her father Werner Scholem was the third son of a middle-class Jewish family of Berlin printers and antiquarian book-collectors so keen  to assimilate that, says Renee, “they wouldn’t have Yiddish spoken in the house and tried to be very German.”

  Werner, however, was the rebel: he married “out” and gave his life to left-wing politics. As early as 1925, he had been photographed speaking at a mass anti-war meeting in Potsdam against German military intervention in the Soviet Union. Arrested on the trumped-up charge of conspiring to burn down the Reichstag in 1933, he was imprisoned and sent to Dachau.

  That was the year when membership of the Hitler Youth rose from 107,956 to 3.5 million. Eagerly accepting the bribe of a smart jacket-and-skirt uniform and hiking boots, Renate Wiechelt joined the Jungmadel, the junior branch of the girls’ section of the Hitler Youth.

  “I was very much a working-class kid who lived more or less on the streets; I had rickets, but I think everyone did round there,” she recalls. “When my mother visited, she smelt of soap, and in a sense I didn’t know she was my mother. I went to a freethinkers’ school and hadn’t heard of Jesus by the age of ten.

  “Then the authorities took the teachers away; I don’t know what happened to them. Goebbels gave us brown jackets to join the Hitler Youth; it was very clever of them to give away free things and I liked being in the Hitler Youth.

  “I didn’t really know what Jews were; I thought they were like Catholics, who my grandmother didn’t like. My grandparents wanted our street to be a mantle over me, but I didn’t realise there was something to hide about me. I wouldn’t come in from playing outside one day, and I was a bit upset when I overheard my grandmother saying, ‘She won’t be our responsibility any more.’”

  When Hitler descended on Linden, Renee’s grandmother made her a white linen dress for the occasion. “Being in the guard of honour made me important among my peers,’ says Renee, who was selected because “Hitler liked plaits. Soon afterwards my father insisted that I come back to Berlin and go to a decent school, but then he and my mother were arrested.”

  However, Emmi was released on bail and made her way illegally to Czechoslovakia and then to England, where she sent for Renee and Edith. By this time Renee was a stranger to her mother and sister, but was fortunate to be offered a home with Naomi Birnberg, a leading member of the London-based Jewish Refugee Committee.

  Renee grew up with the Birnbergs until 1940 and the height of the panic over a possible German invasion. To appease the mood of paranoia and round up potential Nazi sympathisers on British soil, Churchill decreed: “Collar the lot.” Renee, engrossed in her matriculation exams, was arrested in her green school gymslip and interned as an enemy alien in Holloway Prison and on the Isle of Man for 18 months with 4,000 other German-born women.

  It was during her internment that the Red Cross came to tell her that her father had been shot by a firing squad.

  Since then Goddard has constantly reinvented herself. She became an actress and later joined Lord Lew Grade’s ATV channel as the head of the script department. The key influence on her was always Naomi Birnberg, who changed the secretive habits of Renee’s childhood by urging her: “Speak your mind, Renate!”

  Now one of the Women Of The Year Lunch’s longest-serving committee members, Renee joined the organisation in the 1970s to pay public tribute to the woman who had offered her a new life. “There was silence in the hall after I had talked about being integrated into British society.”

  Divorced three times, Renee has had two daughters and several abortions. “With my family history, I didn’t want to bring a child into the world if the father was half-hearted,” she explains with the Germanic directness that she calls her “terrible, outfront way”. Now 77, she lives in a cottage near East Grinstead in Sussex with fellow German-Jewish refugee and divorce Hanno Fry, her partner for the past 27 years. Last month she suddenly married Hanno with their respective children’s blessing.

  “Two of my previous husbands were refugees as well. It’s true, I was drawn to other displaced people in my relationships,” she admits. “But in the sense that we don’t live where we were born and that we often marry people from totally different backgrounds, I feel that most of us are displaced persons now.”