A man in Vogue

October 16, 2015 by J-Wire News Service
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David Leser wrote an article for German Vogue in 2009 about his father Bernard, founder of Australian Vogue who passed away in Sydney this week at the age of 90..

By David Leser

Bernard Leser Photo: Lord Snowdon

Bernard Leser Photo: Lord Snowdon

Long before my father launched Vogue magazine – 30 years ago this month – he had an improbable story to tell.

Like many Jews who managed to escape the horrors of the Nazis and World War 11 it was a story never drawn easily from his lips. He preferred to pave and concrete over the memories, to move on wherever possible in a spirit of optimism, rather than dredge up all the old pain and sorrow.

It has taken me, his elder son, the better part of half a century to extract this story from him, and even now, in my middle age, I am only coming to fully appreciate its drama and significance.

On this the 30 year anniversary of German Vogue it seems like an appropriate time – and place – to recount aspects of this story. After all it is not just about celebrating magazine publishing history; it is about celebrating the possibility of healing that can sometimes occur between two people, in this case the Jew and the German.

My father, Bernard Leser, was 14 years old when he was forced to leave Germany in 1939. It was April 4 to be exact, five months before the outbreak of World War 11, and he was getting as far from his country of birth as humanly possible.

We shall come to how and why New Zealand presented itself as the only safe haven for him, but for the moment it is enough to know that he never planned or wanted to return to Germany again, except perhaps as part of a victorious Allied advance.

My father was born in Berlin in 1925 but spent most of his early years in the industrial town of Sondershausen, 50 kilometres north of Weimar, in the old East Germany. His first memory, as a three year-old, was of his mother packing her suitcase and bidding him farewell. She and his father, my grandfather, were separating and she was returning to Berlin.

My grandfather, Kurt Leser, was one of the biggest employers in the state of Thuringen. He ran a knitwear factory in Sondershausen which, at its height, employed thousands of outworkers producing children’s clothes for the European market. He died in 1969 in Auckland, New Zealand, and I remember him as an urbane, softly-spoken man with silver hair and a deep love of books.

My last memory of him was at my barmitzvah in Sydney where he sat at the lunch table in his silk gabardine suit, still an elegant figure, but stooped and visibly withdrawn. He died a few months later.

It was only when I was much older I discovered that he had been in constant pain for much of his adult life. At the outbreak of World War 1 he’d enlisted as a sergeant in the Imperial Regiment – Koeniger Elizabeta – and fought at the Battle of Marne where he’d been injured with shrapnel and mustard gas. So serious were his injuries his French captors repatriated him back to Germany via Switzerland.

Before that, though, he’d distinguished himself on the battlefield by saving a man’s life in the trenches. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and offered a commission if he agreed to convert to Christianity.

“He refused,” my father told me, “not because he was a devout or practicing Jew – he hardly ever went to synagogue in his life – but because he felt it would have been an act of hypocrisy to convert. We could trace our German Jewish heritage back to the 30 year war of 1618 and the Treaty of Westphalia that followed.”

Remarkably the man whose life my grandfather saved during World War 1 turned out to be my father’s and grandfather’s saviour. By 1938 this man – whose name I don’t know – had become the head of the Gestapo for the region surrounding Sondershausen. One night in late October he called my grandfather at home.

“Kurt,” he said. “I’d like to see you.”

“Where?” my grandfather replied.

“At our usual place in the park.”

A few years ago my father took me to this park and we sat on the same bench where these two old World War 1 comrades – one a Jew, the other a Nazi – had once held their fateful meeting. There were views to the lake through the willow trees and there were children playing with their toy boats. Nearby was a restaurant and small amphitheatre where Brahms and Beethoven concerts could be heard during the weekends. It was a peaceful and civilised setting.

“Kurt,” the Gestapo chief said. “You saved my life 20 years ago. I’m saving yours now. I recommend that you leave Germany as soon as possible. And by that I mean in the next week.”

“But what about my son, Bernd, and my Hausdame (partner) Ernie?”

“Don’t worry about them,” the man said. “They’ll be okay. I’ll make that my business.”

Within a week my grandfather had packed his bags, never to return, and within days of his departure Germany had been plunged into the unprecedented orgy of violence that would become known as Kristalnacht. This was the day – November 11, 1938 – when all over Germany synagogues were torched, tombstones desecrated, and Jewish homes and businesses looted, while in cities, towns and villages Jews were set upon by marauding thugs.

It was also the day when my father’s Jewish boarding school in Coburg was closed down. Two years earlier he’d been sent there because the principal of his old school in Sondershausen had advised my grandfather to remove him, on account of his Jewishness.

Now, along with all the other students and teachers of this boarding school, he was being forcibly removed. As he recounted to me one day at our home in Australia: “The Gauletier, the chief of the local SS, came round and gave orders for the school to be closed and for all the boys over the age of 16 to be sent to Dachau concentration camp. At that time Dachau was not an extermination camp, it was a very basic, primitive camp. But because I was below 16 and so was my cousin Gerhard, we were frog-marched from school through the town, between jeering hordes of Nazis who were throwing stones and spitting at us.

“We were then put into a gymnasium which was part of a youth hostel and made to sit there on bare boards for two nights. We were given dry bread and water and then after two nights we were allowed to go back to our respective cities, towns, homes.”

My father was one of the lucky ones. Less than five months later, together with his aunt, uncle, cousin, great-aunt and stepmother, he flew out of Germany bound for England where he was re-united with my grandfather. During his time away my grandfather had managed to secure visas for New Zealand because of the strong family links established with that country during the latter part of the 19th century.

My grandfather’s aunt had married a man by the name of Hermann Braun who in the late 1890s was appointed Germany’s first honorary consul in Auckland. (Our family still has the documents signed by Kaiser Wilhelm 11 and Bismark!) This was to be our new beachead in the South Pacific.

My father arrived in New Zealand on June 2, 1939, and from the moment he saw the sparkling blue waters and wooded reserves of Auckland Habour he knew he’d reached his Promised Land. Beyond the curve of the bays was a country still emerging into nationhood, still reeling from the catastrophe of World War 1. To my father, though, it was everything and more. “New Zealand absorbed me and I absorbed New Zealand like a blotter absorbs ink,” he once told me. “Almost instantly. I felt very quickly at home and totally welcome. I mastered English fairly quickly and within a few years lost my German accent. I assimilated as quickly and totally as I could and it was made easy for me to do so.

“And then I pulled a psychological curtain down on my past and made myself ignore the fact that I was born in Germany.”

***

My father would prove himself an ambitious man – ambitious to put Germany behind him and to re-invent himself in a world emerging from the shadows of war. In New Zealand, after leaving school at the age of 15, he worked as a cutter, designer, and then “time and motion” man in a clothing factory, while studying business part-time at university.

His real talent, however, lay in sales and marketing and at the age of 27 he was asked to launch the Canadian division of Horrockses Fashion, the oldest manufacturer of cotton fabrics in England.

In 1951, at the age of 26, he returned to Germany for the first time, flying from London to Cologne to buy fabrics from local textile companies. He returned again in the late 1950s on two separate occasions. No one ever suspected his origins. “I refused to speak German,” he says now, “and I had an interpreter at my service. I spoke in English … but of course I could understand every word that was said. I felt so uncomfortable I wasn’t prepared to speak German.”

By the time he was 34, he had already worked in four countries – New Zealand, Australia, England and Canada. Then in late 1958, while working in London, he was asked by the then chairman and managing director of British Conde Nast, Reggie Williams, to launch Australian Vogue. Initially the magazine would be published as a supplement of British Vogue, then as a stand-alone title in its own right.

My father jumped at the chance. Not only was this an opportunity to raise his children in a country he loved, it was also a rare chance to establish a quality magazine in a part of the world still rough around the edges, still coming to grips with its post-colonial British history.

Over the next 17 years, under his guidance, Vogue Australia became the leading fashion magazine in the country, and in its earliest days was to employ the services of a young photographer with a provocative, taboo-busting eye. His name was Helmut Newton and, like my father, he had fled the Nazis before the outbreak of World War 11, but unlike my father had ended up in an Australian internment camp for two years.

On the strength of my father’s success with Australian Vogue and Vogue Living (which he launched in 1967) he was asked in 1976 to take over from Reggie Williams as the managing director of British Conde Nast. Two years later, S.I. Newhouse, the chairman of Conde Nast Publications (publishers of this magazine), popped the question to him.

“Si asked me whether I thought we should explore the possibility of launching a German Vogue. He asked me whether I would have a problem taking over the research on this and I told him I’d be delighted to. He knew I spoke German fluently.”

For a year prior to its launch in September 1979 my father travelled the length and breadth of West Germany, meeting with the heads of department stores and people in the advertising, fashion and cosmetics industries. He wanted to assess the feasibility of a German Vogue.

Throughout his travels he found himself willing to speak his native tongue, but never to offer the reason for his fluency. “I felt much more secure as time elapsed,” he says, “but also at that point I kind of got a kick out of being Jewish and starting an enterprise on behalf of a leading company in its field. I also liked working with a younger generation who hadn’t been tarred by Hitler. I might have occasionally reflected on what their father or grandfather would have been doing during the war years, but as soon as I did that I put it out of my mind as totally irrelevant. I ceased being anti-German once I got to know another generation.

“But when my colleagues asked me `how come you speak such good German?’ I simply responded `I was brought up in Auckland, New Zealand, by a German born grandmother. She ran a bilingual household and insisted I learn German and speak it like a native German.”

The only person in the German operation who knew my father’s true history was Christa Dowling, the German-born founding editor, who he credits today with having been the creative force behind the new magazine. Christa works today as a writer in New York.

In 1987 my father was invited by S.I. Newhouse to become president of the company based in New York. For the next eight years he worked alongside the Conde Nast chairman until his return to Australia in 1995.

Today my father is 84 and living in Sydney with my mother, Barbara, his wife of 57 years. He remains as passionate as ever about the industry he worked in for nearly half a century, and proud of what he was able to achieve in Germany.

“It helped me exorcise my demons,” he says.

A few years ago my father and I decided to visit Germany so that he could show me the places of his childhood. We travelled to Sondershausen to see the house he’d grown up in and to meet his childhood friend, Gerhard Braun, who, at considerable risk to himself during the 1930s, had continued to play with my father after school, despite all the injunctions against mixing with Jews.

We had lunch by the lake where the Gestapo chief had repaid his debt to my grandfather 70 years ago, and then we’d driven to the old Jewish cemetery to inspect the resting place of our ancestors – a series of graves hidden in the long grass dating back centuries.

After this we travelled to Berlin to find the house on Pariserstrasse where my father had come to stay with his mother and where she’d held a barmitzvah reception for him in the spring of 1938. That was a few months before she’d been forced to bid him a tearful farewell from the Zoo Station. (She was leaving for Bolivia, the only country that would take her, and it would be 11 years before they saw each other again.)

My father would point these and other landmarks out to me with little elaboration and then lapse into one of his long silences, silences which I’ve now come to see were attempts at forging a truce between the various parts of himself. The German and the Jewish parts.

For hundreds of years there was an extraordinary symbiosis between German and Jewish culture, so much so that at times the two cultures looked inseparable, especially in the world of theatre, art, literature and music. When the Nazis came to power they didn’t just exterminate a people, they wiped out a pivotal part of their own culture.

Perhaps that’s why my father’s return to Germany 30 years ago feels so significant to me. Not only did it signify true professionalism and a capacity to forgive. It also showed younger Germans that a true healing was possible.

On our last night in Berlin we had dinner with a German sculptor and his wife in their converted warehouse. My father told them this story and when it came time for us to leave, the sculptor took him in his arms and, with tears in his eyes, said: “Thank you Bernie. Thank you for coming back.”

Bernie is survived by Barbara, his beloved wife of sixty-three years, daughter, Deborah, sons, David and Daniel, and grand-daughters, Jordan and Hannah, together with a legion of friends, colleagues and admirers.

 

This article first appeared in Vogue Germany, 2009

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