Sunday 23 September 2018

I.M. Steffi Schwarcz-Birnbaum, 1928-2018

By Jonathan Taylor

On Tuesday 18th September 2018, beloved poet, activist and academic Steffi Schwarcz-Birnbaum died after a long illness. A Kindertransport evacuee to England from Nazi Germany, Steffi spent most of her adult life in Israel. I want to pay tribute to her here. 

Steffi was born in 1928, to Jewish parents Georg Mortiz Birnbaum, publisher and diplomat, and Hertha Erna Birnbaum, nee Steinfeld. Steffi and her younger sister Reni spent their early childhood in Berlin, part of a loving and tight-knit family. 

In 1933, the Nazis came to power, and Georg subsequently lost his job. Over the next few years, he developed Parkinson's disease, and eventually died in October 1939. 

In March 1939, Steffi and Reni left Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, sponsored by Dr. Bernard and Mrs Winifred Schlesinger (parents of the famous film director, John Schlesinger). On arrival in London, Steffi and Reni stayed for some time at a Jewish hostel in Highgate. Eventually, they were evacuated from London to a small village in Hertfordshire. 

There, they were billeted with Albert and Margaret Kelly, who cared for the homesick refugees, and treated them with love and kindness. Like foster parents, they helped the sisters settle into English life and customs, without ever trying to change their beliefs. 

Unfortunately, the sisters did not stay long with the Kellys, but were sent to a boarding school in Cornwall, where the conditions were harsh, and the headmistress attempted to convert all Jewish children. During this time, Steffi was also continuously afraid for the family members she'd left behind in Germany. The fear and uncertainty continued till after the war ended. 

Steffi's mother and grandmother had managed to communicate with their daughters, via Red Cross telegrams from Berlin, until 1942. Then the communications stopped. Hertha had worked in a munitions factory in Berlin until the end of 1942; but in January 1943 she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died. Steffi's grandmother, Jenny Steinfeld, committed suicide just before deportation. Steffi discovered all this following the end of the war. 

In the 1960s, Steffi moved from England to Israel, where she worked for many years at the Hebrew University. She published a book of poetry, Poems, 1989-1993. She had a daughter, Raya, and four grandchildren. She believed passionately in peace and reconciliation, and worked tirelessly for it throughout her life: "Be merciful to the poor, proud to the rich, and act humanely towards everyone."

Steffi telling a joke at our wedding in 2005

As a postscript, I want to add that I am one of Albert and Margaret Kelly's grandchildren, and I grew up thinking of Steffi and Reni as much-loved aunties. Reni is godmother for our twins. In 2002-3, I had the pleasure of setting one of Steffi's poems to music, and the song was performed in concert and on the radio. Here is that poem. 

Ghetto Child

Ragged clothing, terrified eyes
a frame of bone
lacking flesh
haunt us throughout the ages,
black and white photographs
display the despair
the post-war prosperity
makes us stare
   in disbelief!

Hunger, terror
family decimation
burning synagogues - eventual cremation
terror, fear of the day ahead
comprehension of persecution widespread. 

Ghetto child, ghetto child
your bones do not lie in hallowed ground
you did not reach the gate of freedom
your bones are dust, there is no sound. 

Yet where masses of Jewish youth
from all over the globe
tread the Polish earth
when the "March of the Living" takes place each year
to honour the dead - and remember. 
Then, Ghetto child, you can 
rest in peace, for Israel Lives. 


  1. I know Reni since I was a kid and I briefly heard about their history of evacuating from the Nazi, but never in very great details.

    Although I have never met Steffi in my life, I learned a lot about her from Reni. Such a beautiful life she had and also left us such beautiful words.

  2. I knew Steffi through my mother who was a great friend of hers. I would like to get in touch with raya, but have no email or anything. Could you help me with that? Thanks,
    Justine Aalders

    1. Thanks, Justine. Please could you email me about this, and I'll get back to you. The best email to use is jt265 [at] le [dot] ac [dot] uk