Ilse Flatow was born on 20 October 1919, the daughter of Georg and Hedwig Flatow. Both active Social Democrats—he as a ministry official involved in formulating the works constitution in Germany (the Works Council Act of 1920); she as a language teacher and department head at the city social welfare office—they married on 26 March 1918. Targeted by the Nazis after 1933 as Jews and Social Democrats, they were eventually deported and, in 1944, murdered in Auschwitz.
When Ilse was born, there was no indication of the terror to come. Things were looking up for the Flatows. Ilse’s father became secretary to the ‘people’s deputy’ Rudolf Wissel, and later ministry official. He bought an apartment in Lichterfelde, at Promenadenstraße 10, where the family lived until they moved to Schönhauser Straße 11 in Steglitz, and finally into a specially built house at Niklasstraße 5 in Schlachtensee. Remembering her parents later, Ilse Flatow wrote: “My parents both worked. Both were socialists, both active in their own fields. My father as a lawyer, my mother in educational and social work. Until 1933, they worked to support the rights of the ‘have-nots’ among the German population.”
Unlike her parents and grandparents, then, who had lived in ‘Jewish quarters’ in the old town in Mitte, Ilse Flatow went to school and spent her youth in the elegant south-west of Berlin. The Flatows seemed to have achieved the way of life they sought.
Nothing is known about Ilse’s Flatow’s youth, her school-leaving qualifications or her plans for the future.
In 1939, when Ilse was 20 years old, the Flatow family were forced to emigrate to Amsterdam. Ilse had her life ahead of her, but what kind of a life? She had witnessed disaster striking her own family. Later she recalled the events in detail: “My father was arrested during the November pogrom in 1938. He was released thanks to his friend Professor van den Bergh, who promised to take us in in Holland. The day after his arrest, Professor van den Bergh sent us a Christian lawyer to make the arrangements.”
“Nothing illustrates my father’s noble spirit better than the following story: When he was released from the concentration camp, a physical and emotional wreck, with the shaven head of a prisoner and hands swollen from frostbite and covered in injuries, he stopped at the station in town (Zoo station) to buy some flowers, white chrysanthemums, for my mother before he took a taxi home. A broken man, he went into the house with the flowers and said: ‘That’s for still being alive.’ … He went straight to his study, stretched out on his leather couch (known as the couch for thinking) and said: ‘How can we stay in a country where the kind of things happen that I have now seen for 5 weeks with my own eyes.’”
The Flatow family emigrated to Amsterdam a short time later. Ilse soon left Amsterdam for London. She later wrote that she could never understand why her parents “did not act more in their own interests”, also regarding their Jewish origins: “On the difficult, old problem of ‘What are we Jews – a religion? A race? A nation?’ my father liked to say: ‘A people sui generis’. Although he was not a religious man himself, he held steadfastly to this view: ‘A Jew is always a Jew and you don’t abandon a group of people who are persecuted.’ That was his conviction, and response when Christian Social Democratic friends who had ‘left’ their Christian faith to become free-thinking dissidents asked him about it. He could never have imagined dong a thing like that, which is why he utterly refused to become baptized.”
Ilse’s parents did not manage to leave Amsterdam in time. The family papers include some moving Red Cross correspondence between Ilse and her parents, showing alternate periods of hope for rescue and hopelessness, as well as gratitude that Ilse had reached safety. In one letter, Ilse’s parents wrote: “No chance of emigration”. Nonetheless, a year later they wrote: “Hope profoundly to see you again”. But it never happened. The Red Cross letters are the only surviving source of information about Ilse’s time in London. Initially she lived with Otto Kahn-Freund, formerly a judge in Berlin, who had been a close associate of her father’s but had been forced to emigrate back in 1933. Later, Ilse lived outside London in Chertsey, Surrey, in the house of a certain Dr Glaister. In December 1942, she wrote a card to her parents in telegram style, saying: “I am happy, lots of work, but also much pleasure because of our friends.” We do not know what the nature of her work was.
On 3 January 1946, she married Gerhard Herz, who also seems to have come from Berlin, but lived in Haifa (Tel Aviv) at the time and served in the British Royal Navy. Documents show the address of Ilse Herz, née Flatow, as the Runwell Hospital in Wickford, Essex. However, there is no record that she worked in this hospital.
Later she evidently emigrated to Israel with her husband. It is not known when, or what became of their marriage. She did not have any children. One of her first addresses in Israel, in 1951, was 16 Tempeldor Street in Tel Aviv, c/o Dr. Loewy-Hattendorf. Later she lived at 17 Kaznelson Street, Tel Aviv. This is where she died, on 30 September 1995. Recent research conducted in the area did not yield any information about her. None of the current residents could remember her.
In 1980 she handed the family documents that her parents had given close friends in Amsterdam for safe-keeping to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. In a covering letter, she wrote: “I hope and am glad that the story of this family will find a good home in this institute, where the texts can serve as historical evidence and commemoration of my family. They can also shed light on the lives of German Jews during a certain period in history, and provide insight into it, for the few people who are interested and do not want to forget.”