Robert Hewison – An Erasure

This ring is not English. It was made as a gift for a boy’s bar mitzvah. But the bar mitzvah never happened.

The ring was given to me by someone I knew as Auntie Grete. She was not my aunt, but she was the aunt of the boy for whom the ring was made. Auntie Grete’s husband had been a successful industrialist in Berlin, but was imprisoned by the Nazis until he sold his factory. In 1938 he and Grete, who were childless, managed to get permission to leave Germany for Holland, where her sister and her family, including the boy for whom this ring was intended, were living. Later she and her husband travelled to England, and settled.

Her sister, husband and children stayed in Holland, and died in Auschwitz.

Once in England, Auntie Grete was “adopted” by the parents of my future wife. They were not her relations either, but had family connections that went back to Frankfurt, whence both families originated. When I married, Auntie Grete gave me the ring, and told me its story.

When she gave it to me, the ring had the boy’s initials engraved on it, so that it would serve as a seal. Auntie said I could have them erased, and put my own on. So I took the ring to Hatton Garden, and the initials were erased.

Foolishly, I never took an impression of the seal. The boy who never had his bar mitzvah suffered a double erasure. He was murdered, and even his initials have been taken away.

I feel guilty about this all the time, and will not put my initials where his had been. But I wear the ring.

His name was Ernst Bernhard Max Kaufmann, born Amsterdam 14 May 1926, died Auschwitz 28 September 1942, aged 16.

Robert Hewison is an independent cultural historian, writer, curator and journalist. He has published more than twenty books on aspects of 19th and 20th century British cultural history, among them The Heritage Industry (1987), Culture and Consensus: England, Art and Politics since 1940 (1997) and Ruskin on Venice: “The Paradise of Cities” (2010). He has held chairs at Lancaster, City and Oxford Universities. His most recent work is Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain

Video by Gavin McKinnon-Little