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Once in a while in the business of researching and writing history a rare document emerges from the archive boxes. Such items are the products of serendipity; the result of a decision made by their author, or someone, that it should be preserved. Writing in the 1940s, the French Historian and then member of the Resistance, Marc Bloch, drew my attention to such moments. The archives we rely upon for historical understanding are built from such off-the-cuff decisions and accidents – and from the systematic collation of records that are part of bureaucratic life. To read the thoughts and ideas of people who were alive in times past is  to read of our formation. These thoughts and dreams, however recorded, are the beginning of understanding. Poetry, novels, theatre and art are their interpretation. So, too, is the writing of history.

Recently I was given a box of documents collated and packed by an elderly woman, whom I shall call ‘Miss L’. She has since gone into full-time care, her mind lost to Alzheimer’s Disease. It is clear Miss L thought carefully about what was to be kept and what was thrown away. Along with the usual documents: degrees, certificates, bank records, letters and photographs there are two diaries – both kept during the 1940s when she was consulting a psychoanalyst in London. One of them follows the course of her consultations with the analyst, referred to as ‘Dr W’. The other is a dream diary, a record of nightly dreams kept during this period. Most of these dreams hold  images of her daily life and interactions with members of her family and lovers. Others are threaded with images of death and violence at the hands of the Nazis in the years before the war broke out. In others, still, she is addressing ‘Him’, her analyst, on one occasion admonishing him for not listening. Sometimes she makes a joke of him, wondering whether psychoanalysis is of value – at least to the patient. Miss L has a story to tell and conflicts to unravel. She wants and needs him to listen.

Miss L is a German Jew. During her childhood she lived near Nuremberg, the youngest of a wealthy family. Her father, a merchant, had fought in the Great War and was awarded the Iron Cross for his services. Like many of his Jewish contemporaries who were similarly awarded, he believed this would protect him from the worst excesses of the Nazis as they came to power in the 1930s. Five days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Miss L’s father took his own life. She and her mother escaped Germany early in 1939, eventually arriving in England after travelling through Switzerland.

Miss L’s dream diary reflects her larger internal process of emigration and resettlement, from danger to safety. She speaks to her analyst of leaving one country behind but, after several years, still not settled in another. Her dreams are of murder and death. It is not unlikely she was witness to such events, if she did not hear about them from others. She also dreams of losing her identity documents on a train a reference, perhaps, to a period where she was stateless.

After her arrival in London she  experienced rejection by members of the English Jewish community because of her German origins. ‘I was not served in a shop, she tells her analyst.  In later life she recalled how much more devastated she was by this rejection by the English Jews than she had been in Germany during the years when Jews were increasingly deprived of their rights, property and wealth. Miss L eventually anglicised her name and worked hard to become British – even more so than the British. She appears to have been very much helped by Dr W. For it was after her work with him that she went to university to study for a career that would help restore the family fortune lost to the war. Miss L did not necessarily aspire to Law but eventually made a significant contribution to it.

During her analysis with Dr W, Miss L recorded her dreams on a daily basis throughout 1944 into 1945. I will transcribe two: the first because it tells us just how much she had to bear. These were the experiences and memories from which she tried to protect her children. Earlier in the analysis she had dreamed of being told not to speak. But in her conscious selection of this document for the archive box, she has I believe, expressed the wish that these experiences be known. When I read this dream, I wept.

When I read the second dream for the first time I had the feeling I had read it somewhere before. Perhaps in a case study somewhere deep in the psychoanalytic literature…? I record it now because if I am right, this may identify Dr W. Perhaps someone else has read it, remembers it and may know where it has been published. Or perhaps I have imagined reading it.  Suffice to say it is Miss L’s dream.

Dream 1. Tues 2 May 1945.

[Two girls] have offended against some rule of their school and I am told they will both be executed for it. I think it is monstrous. I want to tell everybody about this and do something against it, but I  hear the headmistress did not waste a minute, and they are already dead. I meet a man who worked in my father’s office and he is coming from the execution. I go up to him and start crying but try not to. I say to him ‘I am sorry. I did not mean to cry, but this is just too much’.  I go out to see [a lady], she must be in despair [I think]. The girls were the only thing she had in life. I find her together with some other women each of whom has lost a son. She is quite calm. They all talk about their children.

Dream 2. Sunday 20 May 1945

Mother says we are going to buy some black material for a dress for me at a certain shop in Nuremberg. I am rather thrilled. I haven’t bought any material for years. I leave the house and walk along a street in Nuremberg. There is a beautiful warm shine of light from [ a building she names but is indecipherable]. Before it was bombed the light never shone right through. It is lovelier than ever.

Round the church and the street there are rows of dead bodies of American soldiers. Some are wrapped up in brown paper and string, they must be really dead. One who was lying against a house opposite the church gets up and shows me the way to the shops and I talk to him. I remember that I never told mother I was going out but when I get near the shop I meet her and my aunt with a man in a dark uniform. He has very dark deep set eyes and a rather taut face. He seems much more interesting to me than my guide , who is rather fat and jovial.

The War had ended on 8 May 1945.


Marc Bloch,( c.1944).  The Historians Craft, Oxford, 1971.

Louise London, (2000) Whitehall and the Jews, Oxford, Oxford University Press.