“We never had a doubt that we were just as German as everyone else.”
by Angelika Rieber
The Leos – a German-Jewish family
Thomas Leo is proud of his famous ancestor, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who struggled to emancipate Jews in Germany and Europe. But under the pressure of the 19th century status quo, many of his descendants, including the Leos, had converted to Christianity. His father, Ulrich Leo, lived in a so-called “mixed marriage.”
The children, Thomas and Gerhard, were raised as Protestants. In 1932, the Leos moved from Frankfurt to Oberursel, where they lived until their emigration in 1938/39.
The Nazi takeover destroyed Ulrich Leo’s career plans. As a former front soldier, he was allowed to work as an official at Frankfurt’s city library until 1935. After this, he still received a pension, so he did not actively try to emigrate at first, but his wife pushed him, and on April 1, 1938, he left to take a job in Venezuela.
“I was a very lonely boy”
Thomas and Gerhard Leo went to primary school in Oberursel and proceeded to the gymnasium. Thomas still remembers the feeling of being excluded. At the age of nine, he wanted to join the “Hitlerjugend”, but was – “Thank God”, as he remarks today – not accepted due to his Jewish origins, “but I was a very lonely boy”.
He clearly felt his environment’s anxiety towards him. “I remember a large gathering with hundreds of boys and girls in 'Hitlerjugend'-uniforms. I also went, without a uniform, of course. I saw schoolmates and teachers, and of course they also saw me. They didn’t know what to do with me; they were awkward and somehow embarrassed. When they started marching, I went along, in the gutter beside the road.”
Thomas Leo is still traumatized by the November Pogrom. Nazi squads raided and vandalized their home. Scared for her life, Helene Leo took her two sons and fled along a creek path towards Hohemark, the northern end of Oberursel. They hid near the Schiller Tower. After this, Helene Leo tried to follow her husband to Venezuela as soon as possible. She left the boys at a Quaker school in Eerde (Netherlands), until she was able to emigrate together with them.
“We suffered a lot”
The family was safe, but lived in very hard conditions. Only after WW II were the two sons able to leave for the USA to study. Ulrich Leo fell sick in 1959 and had to stay at a clinic in Oberursel-Hohemark for treatment. The Romanist (professor for roman languages) died in Toronto in 1964.
“Suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself marked as a Jew”
His brother Paul Leo lived in Osnabrück and had become a Protestant pastor. “We never had a doubt that we were just as German as everyone else”, he wrote in his memoirs. This changed in 1933. “Suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself marked as a Jew.” In 1938, he was forced to quit his office and was pensioned.
After being arrested in November 1938 and released a few weeks later, he fled first to the Netherlands, then to the USA. As a German Christian of Jewish origin, however, he was eyed suspiciously abroad, remembers his daughter Anne. Paul Leo never saw his former country again. He died of a heart attack shortly before a trip to Germany planned in 1958.
Forgiving, but no forgetting
In 1960, occasioned by his father’s illness, Thomas Leo returned to Europe for the first time. It showed him that he had to live with the past without hatred. “I felt that I needed to forgive my former country the injustice and suffering we endured as refugees and immigrants.” A class reunion in 2004 filled him with deep satisfaction. The former Oberursel resident no longer felt excluded, but welcomed into the circle. During this visit, he also learned, to his grief, that half a dozen of his former classmates had died in World War II.
Thomas Leo, born 1925 in MarburgParticipant of 2005 visitation program to Frankfurt
Ulrich Leo, Romance philologist, Christian of Jewish origin
Frankfurt: Comeniusstraße; Oberursel (1932-1939): Altkönigstraße
o 1935: Ulrich Leo is fired under the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” (“Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums”)
o 1938, Ulrich Leo: Emigration to Venezuela
o 1939: His gentile wife Helene Leo and their sons Gerhard and Thomas, “first-degree Mischlinge”, follow Ulrich
o After WW II, Thomas and Gerhard Leo can go study in the USA; Ulrich Leo finds a teaching chair in Canada
Brother of Ulrich Leo:
o Paul Leo, Protestant pastor in Osnabrück, one daughter
o 1938 arrest during November Pogrom
o Escape through the Netherlands to the USA after release
Thomas Leo: Visit to Frankfurt: 2012
- Rieber, A. (2004): Wir bleiben hier. Lebenswege Oberurseler Familien jüdischer Herkunft, Kramer-Verlag: Frankfurt
- Rieber, A. (2006): „Wir zweifelten zu keiner Zeit, dass wir genauso Deutsche waren wie alle anderen in diesem Land“. In: Jahrbuch Hochtaunuskreis 2007, Societäs-Verlag: Frankfurt am Main
- Erfurt, J. (2000): Vom Selbstvergessen und Sich-Wiederfinden. Der Romanist Ulrich Leo in Briefen und Akten.; in: Les Mot de la Tribu, Hrsg.: Thomas Amos u.a., Tübingen 2000, S. 250 f
- Schauber, P. (2014) Ulrich Leos Lebenswerk als Romanist -
- Warum Schicksalsschläge seine Forschungsarbeit konzeptioniert haben
- Hessisches Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden
- Conversation and correspondence with Thomas Leo and Anne Ellis, private documents and photos