by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – It is hard to imagine the rollercoaster of emotions when, on March 15, 1939, Marie Zwergfeld put her 11-year-old son on the train that took him to safety in England. Her only child, Herbert, was one of 10,000 Jewish children snatched from the claws of the Nazis in 1938 and 1939 thanks to a humanitarian mission called the Kindertransport. Herbert Fielding – as he later came to be known – is one of 212 Calgary-connected Holocaust survivors whose stories are now part of the Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors project.
Fielding, who eventually settled in Red Deer, Alberta, became one of that city’s most notable citizens.
Made in Calgary, Here to Tell consists of photographic exhibits and a book. My sacred task as lead writer and editor is to capture brief but profound insights into the life of each survivor before, during and after the Holocaust.
How do you sum up a life in 300 words? Impossible! And yet, with the help of survivors, descendants and an army of volunteers, we do so. Herbert Fielding’s story – which I now have the luxury of expanding upon – is one of 51 that will be rolled out in an all-new Here to Tell digital exhibit on September 11.
While every survivor story is unique and compelling, Herbert’s has earned a special place in my heart. How is it that I never knew about this larger-than-life Holocaust survivor? And why was he very nearly lost to the Jewish people?
Herbert’s son and daughter-in-law, Paul Fielding and Jenn Thomas, summed it up in an interview this past July, saying that among the great tragedies of Herbert’s life was his separation from his community.
“He both lost it and couldn’t try to find it,” Herbert’s daughter, Helen Fielding, told AJNews.
Fortunately, Herbert’s descendants have seized the opportunity to repatriate their patriarch.
Herbert Zwergfeld was born on September 20, 1927 in Vienna, Austria where he later sang in a boys’ choir. Tragedy struck when his father Alfred – a World War I veteran – died of tuberculosis. At the time, Herbert was only seven years old. Things would soon go from bad to worse for the clever and inquisitive boy.
A few years later, Herbert was confronted by Hitler Youth members who denounced him as a Jew. Herbert denied it and pulled down his pants to “prove” it.
To their utter shock, Herbert was uncircumcised. Frightened, the young thugs ran away.
Herbert had fallen ill shortly after birth, forcing his parents to delay their son’s bris, which never came to pass.
That twist of fate may well have saved Herbert’s life, Helen Fielding told AJNews. Her father did not share the story until he had another brush with death after contracting septicemia at the age of 80. The angel of death was again thwarted when Herbert pulled through that medical emergency.
Her father-in-law “…had more lives than a cat,” said Jenn Thomas.
Poignant letters between mother and son reveal Marie Zwergfeld’s fervent hope that she would one day reunite with Herbert in England. Fortunately, Herbert preserved his mother’s letters as well as carbon copies of some of his replies to her, allowing rare glimpses into the emotions of a mother and son separated by the madness that gripped Nazi-occupied Europe.
In a letter dated April 21, 1939 and translated by Helen Fielding, Marie urges Herbert to say Kaddish for his father:
“…on April 29th candles must be lit, which of course you cannot do, but perhaps you can say Kaddish, though if it’s not possible I won’t be angry with you but at least you can think of him. Be really good and work hard. I am quite healthy. Many kisses, your Mama.”
On September 9, 1940, Herbert wrote to his mother:
“Dear Mama, Much luck on your birthday. Am healthy, am good in school. I swim. Many greetings and kisses, Herbert”
Though loving, Herbert’s letters had to be brief because of a 25 word limit for letters delivered by the Red Cross, notes Helen Fielding.
Eventually, Marie’s letters stopped coming. Archives gathered by her grandchildren reveal her grim fate. One of 1,000 Jews deported to Riga in 1942, Marie Zwergfeld was among 150 women who were then sent to the ghetto there. Remarkably, she endured ghetto life for two years, likely by clinging to the hope that she would still somehow reunite with Herbert in England. That hope died, together with Marie, four months after she was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp.
Herbert was mainly educated at Stoatley Rough – a boarding school for Jewish refugee children funded by British Quakers and run by progressive German feminist educators.
When Herbert completed his school certificate, the wealthy British-Jewish benefactor who had sponsored him concluded his support. Herbert was now financially responsible for himself.
Archives obtained by his family show that Herbert lived for a couple of months at the Willesden Lane hostel in London toward the end of 1944. Several months later, when he reached the age of 17-and-a-half, he was allowed to enlist in the British army, as he had hoped to do.
Herbert made many successful jumps while training as a parachutist but was disqualified when he broke his arm on his final training run. That misfortune may once again have spared him from an infinitely worse fate.
Eventually, Herbert did serve. His fluency in German made him quite useful in the aftermath of World War II when he controlled a checkpoint in British-occupied Germany on the border of the Soviet zone and also served as a translator.
After returning to England, Herbert – described in a 1939 letter from his Aunt Charlote and Uncle Arthur as a Frageteufel (question devil) – worked and studied, earning his law degree at the University of London and taking postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics.
Aware that his German surname limited his employment opportunities in England (he kept every rejection letter he received), Herbert opted to create his own luck by swapping Zwergfeld for Fielding.
In addition to practicing law, Herbert pursued his love for music, joining a choir where he wooed and won his wife Bridget, a Catholic who had been born and raised in England. Well-educated and independent, Bridget was, according to her children, a woman ahead of her time.
It is hard to imagine Bridget’s reaction when Herbert decided to pursue an opportunity in rural Central Alberta. She put her foot down when they arrived in the small town Herbert had in mind. The couple instead settled in Red Deer, where they welcomed and raised their children Christine, Helen and Paul.
Herbert built a thriving and varied law practice, arguing cases all the way to the Supreme Court. One thing he avoided at all costs was family law.
“He refused to do divorces, and we think that is because his own family was torn apart,” said Jenn Thomas.
As kids, Helen Fielding says that she and her sister Christine – who passed away in 2014 – were aware of their Jewish roots but warned not to divulge the family secret.
“We were told when we were children not to tell anyone that he was Jewish and not to talk about his story,” Helen told AJNews.
“By the time I came along, he was not projecting that same fear,” says Paul, though his father remained reticent to speak of the past.
Herbert served as a Red Deer alderman from 1970 to 1977 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1978. A proud individualist, he ran as a Liberal candidate in a provincial election, knowing full well that a left-leaning candidate from Central Alberta would not be taking a seat in the Legislature.
“One of the things about my father is that he really believed that you don’t do what you think other people want you to do. You do what you think is the right thing to do,” said Helen, adding that, as a result, her father made some enemies.
Herbert was, according to his children, an “enigma.”
Helen recalls meeting a lawyer many years after he had sparred with her father in a Red Deer courtroom. Observing this disheveled guy who was posing “really odd questions” in court, Herbert’s colleague assumed that his own victory was as hand. In the end, as he so often did, Herbert “pulled it all together,” leaving his opponent utterly gobsmacked.
Helen likens her father’s rumpled demeanor and interrogation style to actor Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo – the title character of the popular 70s TV series.
In a eulogy, a family friend described the “bus depot” décor of Herbert’s office. Though he was obsessive and had a highly organized mind, Herbert’s desk was the stuff of nightmares.
According to his family, the guardian angel that repeatedly shielded Herbert from harm worked overtime to protect pedestrians when he was behind the wheel.
“He was a terrible driver,” recalls Helen, who adds that one only saw her father’s hat and his eyes peering over the dash board. Friends instructed their children to flee when they saw his car approaching.
The Fielding clan describes Herbert as having been a generous man, taking on pro bono work and helping family members financially.
“He loved to eat in restaurants and I never once saw him allow anybody else to pick up the bill,” Jenn Thomas added.
At the Rusty Pelican, where Herbert ate lunch daily, holding court with local lawyers and bankers, all the tables were numbered with the exception of “Mr. Fielding’s table,” later formalized with a plaque.
At breakfast Herbert would sometimes quip, “Is this bacon kosher?” Yet, his children also say that their father always paused with closed eyes before eating. They wonder whether a silent prayer harkened back to a Jewish blessing.
In 1987, Herbert went to Austria to visit Helen who, at the time, was living in Salzburg. Herbert had never intended to return, but his daughter says she pushed him to do so and travelled together with her father to Vienna.
Herbert remembered a great deal about the city, easily navigating the streets and even remembering addresses, Helen said.
“He wouldn’t go out to where he used to live. He didn’t want to go there, but he was good with being in the city itself,” Helen told AJNews.
Herbert returned to Austria a number of times with his wife Bridget.
“Wiener Schnitzel was his favourite meal. Nobody could make it like his mother,” recalled Helen, adding that her mother eventually mastered the dish.
In his later years, Herbert doted on his grandchildren, Harley and Zander. His children say he was a great dad when they were small, but Herbert became distant as they reached their teens.
“He didn’t know how to parent because he hadn’t been parented at that age,” observed Jenn Thomas.
Curmudgeonly, but always with a twinkle, Herbert loved his feather and fur menagerie and reading and listening to Beethoven and Viennese Operettas. He whistled or sang wherever he went.
Herbert never really retired; he loved the law too much for that. After a fall that resulted in a catastrophic brain injury, he died in a Calgary hospital on July 1, 2013 at the age of 85.
Honouring Herbert’s wishes, his children arranged for Herbert’s cremation and for a rabbi then serving a Calgary synagogue to say Kaddish for him.
Gerda Mayer, who had attended Stoatley Rough with Herbert, saw his online obituary and reached out to the Fielding family with condolences. Now deceased, Mayer – originally from Czechoslovakia – was also rescued on the Kindertransport. She went on to become a British poet.
“Herbert’s nickname at Stoatley Rough was Beethoven, because of his hair,” says Helen, who inherited her father’s Jewfro. Her brother Paul, who plays the violin, received his father’s love for music. Paul and Jenn’s son Zander has his grandfather’s intense and probing eyes.
“He passed away two weeks after he retired,” said Jenn Thomas of her father-in-law, poignantly adding, “My plan for his retirement was to try and get him to start talking a little bit more.” Thomas had hoped to encourage Herbert to write his memoirs.
Fortunately, Herbert’s family has delved into his history, a labour of love initiated by his late daughter Christine, the family genealogist. And In 2019, on the fifth anniversary of Christine’s passing, Herbert’s surviving children and grandchildren traveled to Vienna to unveil memorial stumbling stones outside the last known residences of their grandmother Marie and her brother and sister-in-law, Leo and Stefanie Roubíček, who also perished at the hands of the Nazis.
I began writing about Herbert on the very weekend that Jews around the world read and contemplated Shoftim (Judges), the Torah portion in which we are told Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice thou shall pursue. And I celebrated Herbert Fielding who devoted his life to that core Jewish value, the flame of his Yiddishe neshama – his Jewish soul – unextinguished.
Fittingly, among other efforts to connect with their family’s Jewish roots, Herbert’s children and grandchildren light menorahs every Chanukah.
May Herbert Fielding’s family always take comfort in the glow of those candles, the memory of their beloved father and grandfather, and the gift of bringing Herbert Zwergfeld back to his people.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.