By Benjamin Preiss
The sisters: Lotte, Sonja and Ursel Ibermann.
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My grandmother, Sonja Cowan, insisted she wanted no gifts for her 100th birthday.
Instead, she requested donations to World Jewish Relief, to support children whose lives have been shattered by tyranny and conflict.
“I’ve been through it,” Sonja said, in her particular German-Scottish intonation. “I know exactly what it’s like.”
Thankfully, she agreed to a party at her daughter’s home.
Sonja Cowan with her family at the celebration of her 100th birthday. From left to right back row: Allan Preiss, Gideon Preiss, Hilary Gould, Romy Preiss and Benjamin Preiss. Front row: Lorraine Cowan and Sandra Cowan. Credit: Eddie Jim
So, a few weeks ago, friends and four generations of Sonja’s family gathered to celebrate her remarkable milestone and evasion of Adolf Hitler’s genocidal grasp.
There was a table piled with bagels, cheese and cakes. We gave speeches and sang Yiddish songs late into the afternoon. Sonja held her two precious great-grandchildren close.
Sonja’s life story, particularly her escape from Nazi Germany in 1939, lies at the heart of my family’s collective identity. But until a few years ago, I accepted that the voices of her murdered family were permanently silenced.
I was wrong.
I would learn the hero at the heart of my grandmother’s survival was a woman cast into the margins of her past: Sonja’s mother.
Gone with a handshake
Sonja was born in 1923 in Berlin, the middle child of religious Jewish migrants from Poland. Her older sister was Lotte, Ursel her youngest.
Sonja barely remembers her father. He died when she was 18 months old and her mother was pregnant with Ursel.
But even today, my grandmother’s memory is sharp. She told me how one morning, when she was about four years old, her grandmother gave her money to fetch a loaf of bread from a nearby shop. But Sonja caved to temptation and bought a chocolate bar instead.
As she sat down to unwrap the ill-gotten treat, a German shepherd bounded from a neighbouring greengrocer’s and snatched it from her hands.
Sonja’s grandmother came out and asked about the bread. “I pointed to the chocolate and the dog eating it,” Sonja said. “That’s when she gives me a smack on the bottom.”
Soon after she was denied the joy of eating that chocolate bar, the Nazis would rob Sonja of her teenage years and closest family.
Sonja has always described her mother, Taube Ibermann, known as Toni, as a distant figure who worked long hours at a Berlin market selling skirts, scarves and gloves. “I don’t remember her cooking at all,” Sonja said. “My mother was never home.”
Sonja Cowan (right) with her elder sister, Lotte, in the 1920s.
I had always been more interested in Sonja’s older sister, captivated by the black-and-white photographs of Lotte on the wall of my childhood home — the girl with a bob haircut and eyes so dark they were almost black. My eyes.
Sonja has memories of Lotte taking care of her and walking her home from kindergarten. In those early years, they were often together.
Sonja cannot recall the adults in her orbit talking about Hitler when he became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, but hostility to Jews became painfully apparent. Jews were banned from many public places and Nazis appeared on the streets, where Jews were vulnerable to harassment.
“Everyone was a Nazi,” Sonja recalled. “They all wore uniforms — the girls and the boys.”
By her early teens, Sonja had been expelled from her public school and forced into a Jews-only school. Jewish teachers, even those who openly prized their German identities, began vanishing without explanation.
By 1938, Sonja’s family clearly had no future in Germany. Wealthier aunts and uncles were leaving for North and South America.
Sonja was sent to the nearby town of Steckelsdorf, where the Bachad religious youth movement was training Jewish children in agriculture in the hope of fleeing to Palestine. She harvested tomatoes and asparagus. She made friends. They prayed and sang Hebrew songs every Sabbath.
By August 1939, Sonja had been in Steckelsdorf several months when the leaders called her name at an assembly and ordered her to return to Berlin. She was not going to Palestine but to Britain. The British government had agreed to accept a limited number of unaccompanied Jewish refugees aged under 17 in an evacuation called the Kindertransport.
Sonja’s younger sister, Ursel, had already escaped by this means. Now it was Sonja’s turn. She was 16 and would be ineligible if she waited much longer.
The Kindertransport saved 10,000 children from Europe, but Lotte was too old to join the evacuation and stayed behind in Germany.
In Berlin, Sonja hurriedly packed clothes into a small brown suitcase with her mother, and they left for the train station. “I didn’t think about it, but she must have thought, ‘when am I going to see my daughter again?’,” Sonja said. “I don’t know. We never mentioned it.”
On the platform, the smaller children, some just infants, wailed as their parents bundled them onto the train. Toni did not hug Sonja or smother her in kisses. Sonja just remembers a handshake and Toni saying: “I’ll see you in Eretz [the land of Israel].”
Sonja never saw her mother again.
The hidden letters
For most of my life, it seemed a few photos and my grandmother’s memories were the only traces Toni and Lotte had left behind; just two among six million Jews erased from the Earth.
But several years ago, Sonja’s nephew, who lives in Taiwan, visited Melbourne with a bundle of letters that had lain hidden for decades. They were addressed to his mother, Ursel, and Sonja herself. They were written by Toni and Lotte.
Sonja’s nephew felt they should now be hers. And anyway, they were in German and needed to be translated.
My family may never know why Ursel concealed these letters until she died in 1999. I believe grief and trauma shaped her life in ways we cannot comprehend.
Wartime letters from Toni and Lotte Ibermann to Sonja Cowan and Ursel Walker. They remained hidden in Ursel’s keeping until her death in 1999.Credit: Eddie Jim
I began transcribing the letters with Sonja, as she read them aloud and then translated them from German. When her eyesight deteriorated, I had the rest translated professionally.
In the lines of the delicately folded paper, I saw a mother desperately trying to parent her two children from an impossible distance.
Sonja had been reunited with Ursel in Scotland by late 1939 at the Whittingehame Farm School, which took in Kindertransport children.
Throughout 1939 and 1940, Toni wrote dozens of letters. In almost every correspondence, she pleads: “Please write me everything in detail.”
A mother’s affection leaps from the pages. “Many warm greetings and kisses from your mother who loves you,” she wrote to Sonja.
I cannot reconcile the tenderness Toni expressed for her children with the coolness of her final goodbye in Sonja’s memory. Perhaps Toni wanted to ease the pain of that awful separation? Or maybe Sonja’s recollection of Toni as a remote character has helped her survive the devastating loss of a mother willing to do the unthinkable to save her child?
Lotte’s writing is quite different. It is spicy and teems with sibling tension. She chides Ursel for asking for a “parcel”. “We don’t have any money,” Lotte wrote. “Please be so good and don’t compare yourself to other children.”
Whittingehame House in Scotland. During World War II, Jewish children rescued from Europe lived on the grounds and learnt farming, hoping to later migrate to Palestine.Credit:
I wonder if Lotte had envied her younger sisters and felt she was missing the adventure. “Are there many Jews in Scotland?” she asks. “You must already be very brown. You go to the sea so often.”
Occasionally, Toni offered a glimpse of her despondence. In April 1940, she wrote about her loneliness days before the Jewish festival of Passover and her despair at the prospect of being alone for the ritual meal.
“I can tell you I am very worried about [how] I will spend Seder. I am so wretched because I am alone and last year we were all together.”
The letters gave me an intimate connection to my lost relatives. I had to know what had happened to them.
‘Keep asking questions’
I began contacting Jewish history experts who handballed me between colleagues until I found Michael Wermke, professor of religious education at the University of Jena in Germany. He specialises in Jewish life in Nazi Germany.
I emailed him during the depths of lockdown, and he responded almost immediately. We began corresponding, sometimes multiple times a week.
When databases drew a blank and my search seemed hopeless, Wermke urged me on. “Don’t hold back, keep asking questions,” he said.
I sent him copies of the letters. He explained that Sonja’s survival was only possible because of Toni’s determination. He believes Toni sent Sonja to Steckelsdorf hoping she would escape to Palestine, but changed course when Britain became a more certain option.
Toni Ibermann with her daughters (from left) Ursel, Lotte and Sonja in 1938.
Wermke said Toni must have urged and even hassled community leaders to secure places for Sonja and Ursel on the Kindertransport. “She had no money,” he said. “She had only herself.”
This fight to save her children and remain involved in their lives was a form of resistance against Nazi oppression. “It’s very important to show this,” Wermke said. “They were not only hapless victims.”
For a while, Toni appeared to hold hope the family would be reunited. In July 1939, she wrote to Ursel instructing her to remain in Britain rather than trying to reach Palestine alone. “If you go to Eretz [the land of Israel] earlier, it will be a long time until we see each other,” Toni warned.
However, the last letter we have from Toni was sent in May 1940. About this time her life took another bleak turn.
Late last year, I requested a report about Toni and Lotte from the Wiener Holocaust Library. When it landed, the thrill of discovery gave way to the crushing realisation of tragedy.
A German deportation document listing “Dauba” (Taube, known as Toni) and Lotte Ibermann as seamstresses at numbers 598 and 599.
The library found identity cards revealing Toni was sent to work for the German company, Siemens, in Berlin, which has since expressed deep regret for its use of slave labour during the Holocaust. Lotte was sent there soon after.
Although the company does not have records of Toni and Lotte working there, it confirmed there were up to 100,000 forced labourers at Siemens, some of whom were undocumented. They were segregated from the broader workforce.
In October 1941, Toni and Lotte were deported to the Lodz ghetto in Poland, where Jews were cut off from the rest of the city and forced into atrocious conditions. Many of its inhabitants succumbed to starvation and disease.
According to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, about 210,000 people were forced to live in the Lodz ghetto.
The Nazis again used forced labour and by July 1942, there were 74 workshops in the ghetto, many producing textiles for military uniforms.
The deportation to Lodz is the last trace I have found of Toni and Lotte’s existence.
They would never know that Sonja engaged in her own kind of resistance soon after leaving the Whittingehame Farm School. After turning 18 ½, she joined the British army’s Auxiliary Territorial Service. Sonja was designated an “enemy alien” and restricted to limited duties, working as a store woman.
Sonja Cowan with a certificate of merit from the British Army that she earned during World War II.Credit: Eddie Jim
She found acceptance in the army, but also loneliness. “When I had my 21st birthday, I sat there on my own, and I never had a letter or call or anybody wishing me a happy birthday. Nobody,” Sonja said, wistfully. “That’s when I felt really alone.”
After the war ended, Sonja never got the chance to tell Toni and Lotte about how she answered the door in her dressing gown to find a dapper returned Jewish soldier called Ralph Cohen (later changed to Cowan) unannounced at her Glasgow apartment, hoping to meet the beautiful young woman he’d heard about.
“I was just about to wash my hair,” she told me with a glint in her eyes. “He said, ‘I’m a hairdresser, I’ll do it for you’.” And he did, running his fingers through Sonja’s hair in the kitchenette sink.
Toni and Lotte were not there to dab away tears at seeing Sonja in her borrowed wedding dress when she married Ralph. In 1947, Sonja gave birth to the first of three daughters in Glasgow whose cheeks Toni and Lotte would never pinch.
Sonja and Ralph Cowan on their wedding day in Glasgow.
When Ralph suggested they move to Australia in 1962 for better work opportunities and warmer weather, Sonja agreed, even though she had barely heard of the place.
And today, her daughters never tire of laughing at how Sonja danced all night to jazz bands on the boat to Australia while they were green with seasickness.
Later, Sonja started working at the Red Tulip factory in Prahran, with plenty of chocolate and no German shepherds to steal it.
Sonja and her daughters, Lorraine Cowan, Hilary Gould and Sandra Cowan. Credit: Eddie Jim
I was born in 1979 — the first of her four grandchildren — and her house became like a second home. When my children were born, she demanded yet more hugs and kisses from them — there are never enough.
As dusk settled on Sonja’s birthday party, her restless great-grandchildren rolled around at her feet as guests began to leave.
Despite her failing eyesight, Sonja was struck by the big extended family that had wrapped around her after spending so much of her youth alone.
“I really felt like somebody.”
Yet, I somehow felt the absence of Toni and Lotte at that party. So, I’ll keep searching for them because so many questions remain.
What happened after the letters stopped? Who might they have become had their lives not been tragically cut short?
Toni’s words will be urging me on, imploring me to look for every detail.
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