Susanne Bano (ne Cassirer) by Ben Bano
Susanne Bano – a brief account
My mother, I suspect in common with others of her generation, spoke little about her childhood with us – perhaps it was through her need to prove that she could leave one culture behind in her life in order to assimilate into another one in her twenties.
Her memories were of a very happy childhood in Breslau, lived in a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, with servants, cook, etc. Her father, as one of the ‘commercial’ Cassirers was involved with his forestry business near Breslau. He certainly lacked the ‘glamour’ of his brother Ernst but from their many letters they had a close relationship as brothers. Her memories of her relationship with her parents were that of a close, warm family. In common with so many of her generation there was much contact with relatives and on special occasions such as birthdays I suspect that she tired of having to compose poetry and songs in honour of a distant and possibly unfriendly uncle or aunt.
My grandmother was a particular personality in her own right. In particular she was proud to be a Lasker – in her view the Laskers were more down to earth and practical than the more ascetic Cassirers – even so the Laskers were not without their achievements as the presence of a chess grandmaster demonstrated.
My grandmother was active in Breslau in many ways – she was local organiser of the Judischer Frauenbund and engaged in what was for the time some innovative work in social care with underprivileged families. She also developed connections with and supported - several artists who I suspect were struggling at the time - including Lieberman and Slevogt. It may for this reason that my mother was the subject of various portraits although the connection with Edvard Munch was unknown until much more recently.
The shadow of the early 1930’s soon began to influence my mother. She was a very liberal, committed person who was not going to conform to any expectations imposed by the Nazis on adolescents of her age. She joined the Young Communists at the age of 18 – a very dangerous thing to do at the time – and later studied in Prague. I suspect that her journeys back to Breslau during her holidays were tense to say the least.
Her career choice was interesting. My brother Andrew recalls that she told him that she had been advised by her distinguished Uncle Ernst to become a a shorthand typist – a hint of stereotyping even in such a liberal family – but instead she decided to become a chemist.
In 1935 she started a job in the Austrian Tyrol where she met my father who was working as a Manager at a Metal Works while still studying for a degree. A word about my father – his father was from a Hungarian family of mionr nobility from Eastern Slovakia and his mother was from a long established Viennese family with many achievements in both culture and academia. He had lost his father at the age of two while on military exercises and the family had had endured a precarious and difficult time at first in Vienna and later in Graz.
It has been a particular source of satisfaction for us to develop contacts in recent years both with the Viennese and Hungarian sides of the family – my father’s family continues to live in what is an increasingly minority Hungarian community in a village in Eastern Slovakia where the Bano family cemetery is situated.
My parents married in 1936 in London. I am not entirely clear why they had to leave Austria to marry, but it may have been more comfortable in view of the increasingly Nazi atmosphere in the small Tyrolese town – Reutte-in-Tirol – where they lived. The crunch point for them was the Anschluss on March 10th 1938. Already my father – in spite of the fact that he was not Jewish – refused to make the Hitler salute and it was clear that both my parents would need to leave Reutte immediately.
The following day my mother left Reutte on a train as if to go shopping – my father left on a train that afternoon, They stayed for a day or two in Munich – where paradoxically it was safer than in Reutte – and after a brief visit to Breslau they went to a small village in Slovenia where they awaited a work permit for my father – it was through a generous offer of an English professional acquaintance that the permit finally arrived. This was not without its drama – since the permit only arrived on the morning of their departure from Genoa to Southampton – on the same day their Italian visa was due to expire.
The early months in England were very hard as for so many other refugees. Both my parents were classified as ‘enemy alien no 1’. My sister Esther was born soon afterwards and my father was interned on the Isle of Man. He later recalled this time as being one of the most creative experiences of his life – to be with the future Amadeus quartet alongside many other creative people must have been a unique experience. As my parents both had scientific qualifications and experience they were soon both involved in highly secretive war work.
My mother remained very concerned about her parents who had by now moved to Berlin to be near the family and – I suspect – in a safer environment than Breslau. She had been reassured by the offer a Quaker lady whom they met on the boat from Genoa to act as guarantor for my grandparents – she remained eternally grateful to for this unselfish offer – as a result my grandparents were able to come to England shortly before the war broke out.
Soon after her arrival in England my mother decided to become a Catholic. She told me later that since her youth she had felt uneasy with the liberal, agnostic tradition which was typical of the Cassirers. When the family was was more settled in the early 1950’s, she became a typical English suburban housewife But she remained a reflective, liberal Catholic and later in life she found a need to return to her Jewish roots through a number of visits to Israel.
After some years in this country my mother found a need to fulfil herself as her children grew older. One day she decided to enter a public speaking competition which she won in spite of somewhat thick German accent. This gave her additional confidence and within a few years she had become a teacher of communication skills and related subjects. She built up a large following within the Adult Education sector and even at the age of 80 she was still giving several classes a week.
Many people who led stressed and unsettled in west London lives found comfort in her weekend courses as well as evening classes. She became a teacher and counsellor much loved and respected by many people who led stressful lives in London’s suburbia. Nevertheless this adulation from others was not always shared within her immediate family !
In later life she found again the radical roots of her youth. She was committed to many causes and complained to me in her last years that the Labour Government was nowhere near radical enough in its programme, even though she first became a party member at the age of 82 !.
My mother died in June 1999 after a very short illness. She is buried in a very peaceful cemetery in Northwood on the outskirts of London. The epitaph on her gravestone reads ‘Susanne Bano, Mother, Teacher and Friend’ – a fitting tribute for a very determined and unique person who all through her life was marked by the influence of both the Cassirer and Lasker families.
At this stage I must also mention my grandparents. They adapted reasonably well to a new life in spite of their advancing years. My grandmother, ever inventive, turned to making and designing hats and within a few years her designs were on the front cover of ‘Womens Realm’ in the late fifties. She was an outgoing and generous person and my regular visits to her flat in Ealing, particularly after the death of my grandfather, provided something of a haven from my otherwise strict parents !
And finally a word about Lucie Lasker, my great-grandmother. I know little about her apart from the fact that she seems to have been a vivacious and unselfish person. She did not hesitate in agreeing that my grandparents needed to leave Germany in 1939 , even though this meant that she would be without her daughter at a time of her greatest need. (Her only son had been murdered by the Nazis in the early thirties as a suspected homosexual).
I assume that she managed to survive in Berlin until the time of the deportations in the summer of 1942, precipitated by the Wannsee conference. The postcard that we have in our possession was written from a transit camp and concludes‘. .All is ended.’
How difficult it is to capture the complete picture of my mother in just a few pages ! We have to see her life alongside that of those who were dear to her as well as through the turmoil which saw the Cassirers emigrate across the world.
It is a healing process to put down these few thoughts – it fulfils as well the need for someone from the second generation like myself to reflect on and value the unique heritage which is ours and that of our children.