What Happened to Howard's Grandmother?    
    Jeffrey Turner on the mysteries of the Tory leader's background    

When Tory leader Michael Howard first revealed that he had had a grandmother who died in Auschwitz there were many who did wonder. Almost every Jew one meets or sees on TV seems to have a relative who perished there. Actual documentary proof of who did or did not die in the concentration camp is virtually impossible to obtain, and so the world has to be content with the word of surviving spouses or kin.

And talking of survivors, there seems to be an enormous number of them too! One is left thinking that if extermination of people in Auschwitz was indeed the Nazi policy it must have been carried out with incredible inefficiency – not a shortcoming usually associated with Germans. Did more get away than actually died? If so, what went wrong?

So when Mr. Hecht – sorry, Howard – told the story about his granny we were, to put a fine point on it, a little sceptical. Now, it seems, we are not the only ones.

It was revealed last month that freelance reporter Michael Crick had been doing a bit of digging into Mr. Howard's family background and had found that his grandfather, Maurice Hecht, had entered Britain illegally some time in the 1930s and that his son, Bernat Hecht (Michael's father) had lied about this when applying for British citizenship in 1947. Then father Bernat claimed that grandfather Maurice had died in Romania in 1939, whereas in fact he was alive and well at the time in London. The truth was that he (Maurice) did not die until 1952 – in London.

In the same application Bernat Hecht said that his mother, Leah Hecht, had died in Romania in 1943, when according to son Michael's story she had perished in Auschwitz (now Poland) a year later. This has now been recorded as a further lie, but was it? It all depends on whether one believes Hecht Senior's explanation or that of Hecht Junior (sorry, Howard)!

The Howard story is that his father, Bernat, left Romania to settle in Britain sometime in the 1930s, as also it appears did his father Maurice. Whether the two came over together has not so far been established. Howard acknowledged that Bernat Hecht had come to Britain as an economic migrant: the region of Romania where he had come from was poor. However, some press accounts of the story have laid stress on the fact that, although the Germans were not then in the country, the spectre of Nazism and Fascism was looming all over Europe and there was indeed already a strong Romanian Fascist movement unfriendly to Jews. In whatever event, the story we are asked to believe is that father Maurice's wife, Leah, stayed in Romania when he and their son came to Britain. So he left her there to face the Fascist menace? Or had the two separated? So far there is no reference to any such event, and so we are none the wiser – only puzzled.

Political embarassment

These revelations about the Hecht/Howard family history have been used by Michael Howard's Labour opponents to embarrass him in the light of his recent declarations that as leader of a future Tory Government he would crack down hard on illegal immigrants. According to Labour and its left-wing allies, how could he when his own grandfather was one?

Good question! But it's not really the most important question. There are several others more deserving of enquiry, and I will come to these in a moment.

The Tory leader apparently got wind of the fact that Crick was going to expose this paternal background in a biography on him (Howard) due to be published shortly before the general election in May, so he pre-empted the exposure by volunteering an interview to the Daily Mail. The details of this were published on February 12th.

In the publicised interview Howard was reported as saying of his father's dishonest citizenship application:-

'I have speculated on the reason, and I suppose that one possibility is that my grandfather might have entered Britain unlawfully. What my father did was wrong. I don't condone it, but I don't feel embarrassed because I have done nothing wrong myself.'

Well maybe, maybe not. It all seems to depend on whether Howard père actually informed his son of the porkies now under examination. Bernat Hecht/Howard died in 1966, by which time Michael would have been 25 years old. Mother Hecht/Howard, named Hilda and the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia, is still alive and living in North London, aged 93. Did neither of these parents ever explain to their son the circumstances of Bernat's citizenship application in 1947? This question would seem especially pertinent with regard to the time when Michael, as Tory leader, started to talk publicly about the problem of illegal immigrants in Britain. By then Papa Hecht/Howard was long dead and gone but Mama Hecht/Howard was still around. Did she not ever say to her boy: "Better be careful of getting into that argument, Mikey. Your Granddad was an illegal immigrant living here and your Dad told lies about this when applying for citizenship in 1947"? For this not to have happened would indicate monumental stupidity. The Hechts most certainly do not appear to have been stupid; together they built and ran three quite successful women's clothing stores in South Wales, where Michael was born.

The only other explanation for Hilda's failure to tell her son about what happened would be that she never knew about it herself: she never knew about her husband's lying citizenship application and the fact that her father-in-law was living in London until his death in 1952 instead of in Romania, as her husband claimed, because he had never told her! That is stretching credulity to the utmost.

So the question must be asked: when Michael now states that he never knew about his father's false citizenship application until it was revealed in the researches by Mr. Crick, is he being as economical with the truth as his dad was 58 years ago?

And this leads to a further question. The Tory leader has made a great song and dance about his grandmother's death in Auschwitz in 1944, but according to his father she never died there at all but in Romania a year previously. Which is true? Is either true?

Aunt in Auschwitz

There is another interesting aspect to the story, and it appears in the Daily Mail account. Grandmother Hecht apparently had a daughter, Rose. According to the story, the two were living together in Northern Romania when the mother was rounded up by the Nazis and put on the train to Auschwitz. The daughter could have avoided the same fate, as friends had offered to hide her; but she did not want to be parted from her mother and so went along with her.

Let Mr. Howard now take up the story at the point at which the two arrive at the concentration camp:-

'My grandmother and aunt were separated, as soon as they got off the train, by the SS guards. They were divided into two groups.

'Those who were young, able-bodied and capable of work were sent one way. Those too old, too frail or too young to be of use... went the other way. At this point my aunt and grandmother were forcibly parted...'

From this it must be assumed that the younger woman was put into the category of the able-bodied and able to work, while the older one was not. But here there is a contradiction. Let Michael resume the story:-

'My aunt was taken to the gas chamber twice. On one occasion they ran out of gas and so she survived. On the other there was some malfunction.

'Then the third time they came to the barracks where she lived to take everyone in it to the chamber, but she was so thin – all she was given to eat were potato peelings – she managed to hide in the chimney. They didn't find her. She, alone among the group, miraculously survived.'


Now what a truly extraordinary set of circumstances! Again we see an example of the gross inefficiency of the Germans. First they allow the gas to run out (was the responsible engineer shot?). Then there is a malfunction – presumably of the gassing process (shoot that culprit too!). This seems to have happened a great many times and in a great many places, for Jewish survivors never cease to talk about it. Something always somehow went wrong just as they were about to be killed, and they got away. Miraculous!

But all this doesn't quite add up. Leave aside the fact that the Germans' customary thoroughness seems to have deserted them on so many occasions, and think about Aunt Rose herself. By her nephew's account she was put among the able-bodied and capable of work. Why on earth, then, would her captors want to kill her? And why indeed would they first reduce her to virtual starvation by a diet of potato peelings? That seems an extremely foolish way to treat people who were supposed to be at the camp to be used as 'slave labour'. If you want to use people as slaves you keep them strong and healthy.

But Aunt Rose was apparently reduced by these starvation rations to a state of such thinness that she was able to hide in the chimney when they came to take her away to the gas chamber. Were the SS guards – by repute the élite among the German forces – so slap-happy that they failed to look in such places? And didn't they anyway have a roll-call of the inmates, so that she would have quickly been discovered as missing? In fact, Rose ended up here in Britain as did her father and brother.

The publication of Mr. Crick's book on Michael Howard will be awaited with much interest. No doubt it will probe into those embarrassing matters of his father Bernat's dishonest citizenship application, and perhaps ask the very pointed question that has been asked here: is it really true that Michael has only just heard about it?

But one rather doubts whether these other questions, the questions concerning what happened at Auschwitz, will be asked. That would be treading on a real minefield – a minefield onto which professional journalists in the year of 2005 still do not dare to venture. One day these questions will indeed be subjected to genuine scrutiny. For the moment we may rest content that the credibility of the leader of Britain's Conservative Party has been called into very serious question. This will be a space well worth watching!

    Spearhead Online