The secret Nazi family history that inspired Ben Elton’s novel: Comedian’s uncle was made to join German army as rest of family were condemned to die

The Mail on Sunday
28th October 2012
By Emily Hill

It is the deeply personal and heartfelt story he has wanted to tell all his life. But only in middle-age has Ben Elton finally felt he has the maturity and experience to commit it to paper.
The one-time enfant terrible of the Eighties ‘alternative comedy’ scene, Elton is now a comfortably off, 53-year-old, with 13 best-selling novels and four hit musicals to his name. He need never write another word again.
Yet by his own admission, he became obsessed writing his new novel, Two Brothers, which tells the tale of German ‘twins’ who end up on opposite sides during the Second World War.
‘This book woke me up at two in the morning – for 50, 100 nights,’ Elton says. ‘I would think, “I’ve got to get back to sleep, this is dysfunctional.” But I knew if I stayed in bed I would just lie there awake so I had to get up and write. I loved writing it but it was hard work. It just pulled at me.
‘Everything I have ever written in the past has come immediately from an idea that occurred to me. But this was different. This book has been gestating inside me all my life.
‘I think I needed to be as old as I am now to want to go into the details. It was depressing researching it. But you do not write fiction about such a dreadful period unless you know what you are talking about.’
Two Brothers tells the tale of Paulus and Otto, twin sons of German Jews who thrive in the Weimar Republic. But in 1933, when Hitler and the National Socialist Party take power, a secret is revealed.
One baby dies and is replaced by an adopted Aryan baby born on the same day. The two are brought up as ‘twins’. In Nazi terms, the second baby is permitted to live while the rest of his family will be condemned to die. One brother escapes to Britain, while the other is compelled to join Hitler’s army.
But while the premise may sound unlikely, it is not complete invention. Elton says: ‘It is fiction, but I’ve drawn on my own family’s story.’ His father, Ludwig Ehrenberg, was born in Tubingen, Germany, in 1923, two years after his brother Gottfried. Their parents, Victor and Eva, were scholars and secular Jews who regarded themselves as Germans. Indeed, Victor had fought in the First World War.
Family affair: Ben Elton’s uncle Gottfried, left, and his father Ludwig Ehrenberg, who later changed their names to Geoffrey and Lewis Elton after arriving in Britain
Family affair: Ben Elton’s uncle Gottfried, left, and his father Ludwig Ehrenberg, who later changed their names to Geoffrey and Lewis Elton after arriving in Britain
In 1929 the family moved to Prague, when Victor obtained a professorship at the city’s German University.
After Kristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of German Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps, the Ehrenbergs realised they were no longer safe.
Through his academic connections, Victor secured a research position in London and the family fled Prague in February 1939 just a month before Hitler occupied the city. They arrived in England on Valentine’s Day.
Eva persuaded officials at Dover that Ludwig and Gottfried spoke fluent English – although they barely spoke a word – and then managed through a friend to secure places for them at Rydal School, Colwyn Bay in Wales.
‘I always grab every opportunity to remind people who want to run Britain down that it is, largely, an extraordinarily tolerant nation,’ says Elton.
‘I am extremely conscious of the good fortune my father’s family had when Britain took them and basically gave them sanctuary. They managed it by the skin of their teeth. They were impoverished when they came to Britain – but they were alive.’
Other members of the Ehrenberg family were not so fortunate. Some were taken to concentration camps, while Eva’s sister was shot. Only one was able to remain safely in Germany – Ludwig and Gottfried’s cousin Heinz, who had been adopted by Elton’s great-uncle Paul. Although he was brought up as a much-loved son of a Jewish family, he was not ethnically a Jew.
While Heinz was conscripted into the Wehrmacht, his cousin Gottfried enlisted in the British Army and became an interpreter with the Army Intelligence Corps. He was advised to anglicise his name because an Ehrenberg would immediately be identified as a refugee Jew by the Nazis if captured.
So Gottfried Ehrenberg became Geoffrey Elton – later better known as Professor Sir Geoffrey Elton, the eminent historian. Ben’s father Ludwig changed his name to Lewis, later becoming a professor of higher education at University College, London.
‘I find the fact that I had one uncle in the Wehrmacht and another uncle in the British Army fascinating,’ says Elton. ‘I always thought I would write about them. A Jew and Jewess had adopted a non-Jewish child – Heinz.
‘The anti-Semitic laws that Hitler introduced in the Thirties stripped Jews of their rights and I have long wondered what that must have felt like – all the other members of Heinz’s family became race enemies of the state and he was not.
‘I’ve asked my father but he didn’t really know or remember. People who lived through that period don’t talk much about it.
‘It’s an interesting moral dilemma –Heinz wanted to stay in a country that had deemed his parents unworthy of citizenship. Later, they would be classified subhuman [they fled to Holland and later America].
‘But he was just a young man, who wanted to finish his education and become a farmer. As it turned out he had to spend six years in the Wehrmacht.’ During the conflict, both Heinz and Geoffrey served in Italy and later worked out they had been stationed within a mile of each other.
Divided: Ben Elton had one uncle serving in the Wehrmacht and another in the British Army
Divided: Elton’s ancestors ended up on opposite sides – with one uncle serving in the Wehrmacht and another in the British Army
When the war ended, Heinz returned to the family farm in Germany, which Elton remembers visiting as a boy.
‘I spent many holidays in the Sixties on that farm,’ he says. ‘I can remember once we went on a walk and I found an old, steel Wehrmacht helmet buried in the woods.
‘It was all rusty and I was thrilled with it – obviously these things are lying all over Germany waiting for little boys to find them. I put it on and when I got back to the farm I did a Hitler salute.
‘I was only eight. And I can still remember the face of Aunt Ninny, Heinz’s wife. She became very grave and sad, and Mum scolded me, saying, “Don’t do that Benji.” ’
The two branches of the family are still in touch – in 1994, Heinz came to Britain to attend Sir Geoffrey’s funeral – but Elton thinks it inevitable that the link will eventually wither. ‘There was a lot of closeness there but the years go by and when Heinz dies there will come a point when the English and German sides of the family lose touch because things move on,’ he says.
He seems particularly concerned by the passage of time and its impact. As the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis begin to slide out of living memory, Elton worries that the younger generation are unaware of their significance.
‘You would be amazed, now, at how many people haven’t heard of Kristallnacht and the Night of the Long Knives, but then lots of young people haven’t really heard of Margaret Thatcher now,’ he says.
Elton, an only child born in 1959 to Lewis and his English wife Mary, has been aware of his family’s extraordinary war-time experiences for as long he can remember, although they were rarely discussed.
He grew up in Surrey and remembers his paternal grandparents, who lived in Hampstead, North-West London, as ‘wonderful, slightly weird people with strange accents’.
‘They were quite well off because Germany became an exemplary state after the war and paid pensions to many,’ he adds.
‘My parents were secular. I am an atheist. I didn’t know the word “Jew”. I don’t consider myself Jewish. I am half-Jewish by race but not through my mother. I knew my dad could have died in Nazi Germany – but he didn’t. And it really wasn’t part of my life.’
Nevertheless, despite his protestations, it is possible to discern a thread linking the persecution suffered by his forebears, to the satirical political diatribes that were the hallmark of Elton’s stand-up act during the Eighties.
Virtually exploding with righteous ire, he would rail against perceived Right-wing injustices and iniquities, ending a rapid-fire rant with his catch phrase, ‘Little bit of politics there’.
He was the scourge of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – or ‘Thatch’ as he dismissively referred to her.
Throughout that decade, Elton was one of the brightest stars on television, first with a regular slot on Saturday Live and then as the host of Friday Night Live. At the same time, he was working on screenplays. Aged 23, he co-wrote the cult hit The Young Ones, with Rik Mayall.
Soon afterwards, Richard Curtis invited Elton to help sharpen up the second series of Blackadder and he became a co-writer.
However, in 1989, when Blackadder Goes Forth satirised the futility of the First World War, he ran into trouble – with Sir Geoffrey. Elton recalls: ‘He wrote me a letter, slightly pompous and grandiose, which said, “Without the British Army your father who sired you would not be here.”
‘Of course I knew that. And I’ve known that all my life. Instinctively, I would do nothing but respect the men who fought in those wars. But Geoff served in a war, and he had a deep emotional connection with the British Army and what it fought for – it really affected him.’
Elton wrote back, insisting that the satire was intended to be respectful and Sir Geoffrey backed down.
‘He accepted it, rather grumpily, saying, “I’ve watched some more and I’ve decided that it’s probably all right. But you shouldn’t be so sensitive to criticism.” ’
Over-sensitivity is a charge that is frequently levelled at Elton. His Left-wing routines made him enemies, before he then alienated some fans when he began writing not only screenplays and books but musicals, including Queen tribute We Will Rock You, which has made him a rich man.
Fellow comedian Stewart Lee has compared him unfavourably with Osama Bin Laden – because the world’s most-wanted terrorist had ‘at least lived his life according to a consistent set of ethical principles’.
Now living in Australia with his wife Sophie and their three children – Bert, Lottie and Fred – it was even claimed Elton had emigrated because he was so upset by the repeated tongue-lashings. However, he insists this is untrue.
He met Sophie while touring Australia with Rik Mayall in 1986, when she and her all-female band supported the British comics. ‘I didn’t ask to fall in love with an Australian,’ he says. ‘Had I met her as a poor backpacker it probably would have been a beautiful dream and nothing more.
‘But I could afford the plane fare so I ended up with this double life. We lived in Britain throughout the Nineties and it took us a long time to have children.
‘When they reached the age of ten, we had to face a very difficult decision. If we continued to live in Britain, our children would never know, in any real sense, their very large and very wonderful Australian family.’
Elton now divides his time between Britain and Australia. Currently, he is in London working on Slings And Arrows, a BBC sitcom set in a council’s health and safety department.
‘It is hard being away from my family, but when I am at home I get to see more of my kids than most breadwinners, so I am very lucky,’ he says.
‘For me, everything has been an improvisation. My life changed fundamentally when I met Sophie. I was sitting in Australia, not famous there, twiddling my thumbs. I have this ongoing compulsion to write. So I started to write a novel.’
He certainly seems to have felt compelled to write Two Brothers, his magnum opus. His parents have both read it and given their seal of approval.
‘My parents are never particularly effusive, but my mother liked the book a lot. It’s a page turner, as she said. Now, I wish that I’d written it a few years ago, as my dad is getting very old now… but it took a long time to get around to it.
‘The story was living with me before I wrote it – and it’s been living with me since I finished it. It’s very strange for me. I’ve never read a word of any of my other novels after I have finished them. I’ve never seen a whole episode of Blackadder. If I’ve finished it, I’m not interested any more.
‘But with Two Brothers I feel more joyful at having completed it than anything else I have ever done.’

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