5/17/07, 01:07 AM
By now I have been working on my new “Herman Gebler” book for almost two years, which is at least twice as long as I had anticipated when I started it. Herman Gebler was a musician –apparently an accomplished violinist– with the Frankfurt Conservatory orchestra, who fled Nazi Germany in 1940 or thereabouts, and came as a refugee on a North German Lloyd ship to Cork Harbor in the south of Ireland.
When the Irish immigration officials discovered that he had arrived without a visa they refused to allow him to land and told him that he must return to Germany. (For most of the 30’s and 40’s Ireland had a very restrictive policy against admitting any Aliens or Refugees into the country. It is, by the way, widely held that this policy was, at its core, anti-semitic.)
But Herman Gebler did not return to Germany. By some quirk of fate or circumstance, the local Cobh shipping agent –one Mr. Billy Mitchell– managed to sneak Herman Gebler off the ship and get him landed at Cobh. Some people –including Mr and Mrs Mitchell, my mother and father, and my aunt Bee– got involved in helping Herman in his difficult new situation.
There is no doubt that he was grateful for their help –he later told my mother that he would have killed himself rather than allow himself to be sent back to Germany.
I became interested in the story of Herman Gebler when my youngest brother Jerome, who still lives in Cobh, County Cork, told me about two years ago that he had come across amongst my mother’s papers –she died in 1994– a one-page letter from Herman Gebler to Mrs. Mitchell dated October, 1944. It was chatty and appreciative in tone, and it was written on Herman Gebler’s own letterhead –a music teacher living in Waterford city, incorporating his German music credentials, including the famous conductors he had played under (such as Furtwangler, Richard Strauss and other famous names.) In it he passed on best wishes to various members of our family, and mentioned that my eldest cousin Mary O’Shea would be starting her very first violin lesson with him that week.
Jerome sent me a copy of the letter. I remembered very well the name Herman Gebler: as a young boy (I was born in 1937) at home in Cobh it was constantly mentioned by my parents. Its foreign-ness was distinctive in my young experience: I don’t think I had ever encountered a name with that ‘B-L’ sound in the middle of it. (An odd detail: as a young lad I wore knee-socks, held up by elastic garters. When I rolled off my garters they made –it seemed to me– that same ‘B-L’ sound.)
I had left home in 1957 for London, but Jerome had lived in the same house with my mother until her death in 1994. Naturally, he had heard many more of her stories. He knew the story of Herman Gebler very well, had heard various aspects of it many times over the years. Quite how my parents came to know that Gebler’s background was Jewish I am not sure, but the whole family, and my cousins too, knew it. I would imagine now that Herman had simply told them –they had, after all, become good friends. To be Jewish was clearly different in some way from being Catholic, but it was no big deal. Our dentist in Cork, Mr. Scher, was Jewish –whatever that meant.
Now, in 2005, somehow Jerome had discovered that the wellknown Irish writer Carlo Gebler was a grandnephew of Herman Gebler’s. Carlo had written a family biography, “Father and I”, about his father Ernest Gebler and their difficult relationship. Jerome tried to contact Carlo at the time but without success. But we both did read his powerful book. Ernest Gebler was also a writer: he wrote the book about the voyage of the Mayflower that Hollywood made into a hugely successful movie in 1951, starring Spencer Tracey. In 1954 he married a very young Edna O’Brien, who was to become one of Ireland’s bestknown novelists. It was a difficult marriage. Ernest was a difficuly man –apparently he convinced himself that it was he who was writing Edna’s books; he insisted that she sign over her first royalty check to him. She did, and she divorced him in the same breath. That was in 1964.
After a number of discussions with Jerome and my sister Ros,I became convinced that the Herman Gebler Story was a story that should be told. Essentially it is the story of one “illegal alien”, a Jew fleeing Germany, one of the very few who found his way to an officially unwelcoming Ireland, and it is set dramatically against the story of Charles Bewley, the Irish ambassador to Berlin from 1933 to 1939, fervent admirer of Hitler, and by all accounts the architect of the antisemitism at the core of the unwelcoming Alien & Refugee policy.
There is a darkness to the history of Ireland in the 20’s and 30’s with its post Civil War aftermath of internecine violence, and fierce political partisanship, including the huge Fascist Blueshirt movement, that was unknown to young Irish people. For all of the darkness and violence, there were however many shining examples of “good people, ordinary people, doing the right thing” and I very much want that to be part of the story too, for it is my intention to illuminate that difficult period with my account of this important and dramatic tale.
The new Google and the famous old august Research Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library have both became my constant companions in the last two years.
I was to discover many twists and turns in the story of Herman Gebler. And many surprises.
Finally, let me here ask for your help, advice, suggestions. There are still quite a few unanswered questions, and no doubt some undiscovered sources of information –people who knew HG in Waterford in Ireland (he was a founding member of the Waterford Music Society in June 1942), his many students at both Ursulines(Catholic) and Newtown (Quaker), and other private students. And people who knew him (and his wife Irma, also a musician) in Frankfurt, Germany, before WWII. And government (both German and Irish) and Jewish records.
PART 1 ABOVE is the basic structure of My “Work In Progress”: The Strange Story of Hermann Gebler. I will write more about it soon, and hope to get your input.
PART 2 Coming shortly.