I escaped the Nazi Holocaust
Saturday 9th July 2005, 12:00AM BST.
A woman who survived the Holocaust might not have lived to see her native Guernsey again. But Janet de Santos, who recently returned to her roots, tells Janie Corbet the harrowing tale of how her family cheated death at the hands of the Nazis HE story of Elisabet Fink – the only one of three Guernsey-based Jewish friends to escape Hitler’s death camps – reads like the script of a Hollywood movie.
Thanks to her island marriage to Henry [known as Harry] Duquemin, she was sent to Biberach rather than the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Tragically, her two friends were not so fortunate and became victims of the Nazi’s murderous anti-Semitic regime.
Elisabet had fled to Guernsey from Vienna in 1937 as news of the true horrors and dangers facing her race began to emerge. Unfortunately she made a bad choice in heading for the Channel Islands. Although she found happiness with her Guernsey husband and their daughter, the Nazis eventually caught up with them.
That daughter was Janet de Santos and she has only recently started to put together her late mother’s extraordinary story.
When we meet at her St Saviour’s home, Janet tells me she is finding it hard to piece together exactly what happened to her family during those dark days of the Second World War – mainly, she says, because most of the witnesses have now died. ‘You always do these things when it’s too late,’ she says.
She has, however, managed through family photographs and records of the time to find out much more about her mother’s tale.
Elisabet, who was 28 when she arrived in Guernsey, found work as an au pair at Albecq. Janet thinks her mother met her future husband, Mr Duquemin at Cobo Post Office, which was owned by his family.
A widower, he was also the family’s eldest son and on 12 February 1940 he and Elisabet married at St Sampson’s Church. The wedding was recorded in the Guernsey Evening Press, though it did not mention Elisabet’s race. Her Jewish friend, Auguste Spitz, was at the ceremony. The reception was held at her brother-in-law’s hotel, Les Pieux.
But just four months later, war clouds were gathering. The couple’s happiness was shattered when the Germans invaded Guernsey and began searching out Jews in the island.
‘Fate is strange,’ says Janet. ‘She chose to come to the only place in the UK she shouldn’t have come to.’ Fortunately, though, she had become a British national by marriage.
Elisabet was obliged to register with the authorities but did not have leave her home. Life carried on and the couple’s daughter was born in 1941. Then the Germans made their move.
Elisabet’s friends, Miss Spitz and Therese Steiner, together with Marianne Grunfeld [who had not registered but was discovered to be Jewish], were deported on 21 April 1942 and sent to the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz. Within six months, they were dead.
Although Elisabet had escaped the first set of deportations, her days were numbered. In September that year, together with another woman who had married a Guernseyman, Elda Brouard, she was served with a notice banning her from entering restaurants and other listed establishments.
The effects of those orders can be read in an interview with Elisabet who describes the living nightmare she was in.
She says: ‘Every day, for a year-and-a-half until I was deported, I lived in fear and terror. I was in trauma all the time. Every day I was frightened and did not know if they would take me away, or my baby daughter, or my husband.’
Unfortunately for Elisabet, on 13 February 1943, they did. ‘You had to take just one suitcase – how do you pack sufficient for one small child?’ says Janet. ‘My mother was aware what was going on – she knew what could happen.’
A document listing the deportees is a chilling insight into how the Duquemins’ world was to change overnight. It reads:
‘To Lager Compiegne:
‘Elda Brouard [stated reason for deportation 'Jew']
‘Elisabet Duquemin [stated reason for deportation 'Jew']
‘Janet Duquemin, aged 18 months [deported as child of Elisabet]
‘Henry Duquemin [stated reason for deportation 'Wife is a Jew']
The next stage was equally as harrowing. Janet takes up the story: ‘When we got to St Malo, we were divided up. My father went to Laufen for men-only, in Germany, and we were sent to Compiegne, near Paris.
During the family’s time in the camp, Elisabet was put in charge of the barracks – probably because she could speak German.
‘It was apparently a horrible place. We stayed for six months then we were sent to Biberach. Everything was better than Compiegne.’
Because she was so young, Janet has only a few memories of the camp. ‘I made a fuss about going to school so they eventually sent me, although I was too young.’ Another memory is of a play in the camp. ‘We did The Teddy Bear’s Picnic and I was one of the bears.’
When Henry Duquemin was finally reunited with his wife and daughter, six months later, Janet did not recognise her father.
After the war, when the terror was over, the family returned to Guernsey and tried their best to carry on as normal. Although Henry returned to his work at the post office, Elisabet decided to open a guest house, L’Estrainfer, at Cobo. She built up the business and ran it for several years.
But she never lost her accent and could never write English properly. ‘She felt always different,’ says Janet.
Elisabet hoped to compensate for Janet’s two-and-a-half years of lost childhood by sending her to a private school in Town.
‘I found it extremely difficult to adjust to normal life – I’d never lived normally at all,’ she remembers. ‘I’d scream the place down every day. In the end, my parents gave up and let me go to Castel School and then Ladies’ College.’
When Elisabet retired, the family built another bungalow just up the lane. Her father continued working in the post office until the day he died.
Janet went on to study at Oxford and at the end of her university course wanted to spread her wings. She went to Italy for three years and Spain for eight or nine, ending up working for a Swiss bank.
After Harry’s death in 1970, Elisabet joined her daughter in Spain and followed her on her return to the UK, which is where she died some 20 years ago.
The only member of her mother’s family that Janet ever met was her uncle, Johann, who had managed to escape to Warwickshire.
He had fled his native country in a Swiss-registered car, trekked across Europe – always a step ahead of the advancing Nazis – and joined the volunteer Czech Army in Prague. He arrived in England with the remnants of that force.
Janet’s grandfather died in Buchenwald concentration camp, while her grandmother died in Brazil, to where she had escaped.
The family first met Johann on their way home from Biberach and this was the first of many trips to the UK over the years.
Janet recalls that he, unlike her mother, had retained his roots.
‘He remained extremely Jewish. In fact, I thought everybody in England spoke with a foreign accent. I learnt about Jewish life through him. It was only after the war that I saw the Jewish aspect of things.’
Many years later, Janet ended up working for him, running three of his factories.
It was after his death in 2000 and when she reached retirement age that she made the decision to sell up and return to the island of her birth.