Article written by Padrayla Holdsworth
Dr Fritz Ewer was born into a German Jewish family on May 7th 1908 in Berlin. Despite nearly eighty years living in England, he never lost his German accent. Sister Lilly was two years older and his brother Wolfgang three years younger.
As you can tell from the names, this was a family who saw themselves as German rather than Jewish and also in which agnostic views prevailed. He only became knowledgeable about Judaism during the war, when in the company of Orthodox Jews, during his internment. In 1962 his spiritual journey led him to join his wife Peggy in the Catholic church.
Fritz’s family lived in a working class district of Berlin, on a busy junction with three of the four corners taken by pubs. The ground floor family flat incorporated both living accommodation and doctor’s surgery, for Fritz’s father was a GP and from a long line of doctors. Behind the house was a yard, overlooked by a dairy, a bake house and a shop. Fritz from an early age would pop his head through the bathroom window and chat to the bakery workers taking cooling down breaks in the yard. There was plenty going on to amuse a small boy. The stall next to the dairy housed milk cows, who appeared in a rota from the countryside. Barrel organ grinders visited the yard too, and the Ewer children threw them pennies wrapped in paper out of the window. Twice a year an orphanage choir came to the yard and sang for them. Both Fritz’s grandmothers were accomplished pianists so it was not surprising that he had a great love of music, but not, so he claimed, much talent for it.
His friends at Kindergarten included Horst Wessel, son of a Berlin pastor. Horst became a notorious Nazi and was killed in a street battle with Communists. The principal Nazi marching song is named after him. Fritz joined the scouts but had to leave when the movement was to be “Juden-rein” (cleansed of Jews). This was an eye opener because he realised early on what Germans felt about Jews. Inflation of the mark reached its peak in 1923 when 1000,000,000,000 marks equalled the buying power of one old mark! The middle class who had savings were particularly hard hit, driving them to support the Nazi party. Lack of funds meant 17 year old Lilly and 15 year old Fritz had to leave school and take on apprenticeships in banking houses. By the time the currency had stabilised enough for Fritz to return to school, he had fallen behind in all subjects except mathematics.
However he caught up sufficiently to be able to enrol in 1926 as a medical student at Berlin University. After qualifying in 1930, he was all set to start work at the Urban Hospital when an official boycott of all Jewish businesses and shops was declared and the Jewish doctors were dismissed from the hospital. Where should he go? He had studied English for two years while at school, and had visited London briefly. His aunt waved him off and said “you will never get through my boy, all trains are being searched by storm troopers”. She turned out to be the only survivor of those members of the family who had been unable to leave the country.
After postgraduate study at Edinburgh University, Fritz went to work at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Folkestone. He started on 1st July 1935 as a junior resident officer on a salary of £25 per month with free board and lodgings and laundry. The terms seemed princely to him so he celebrated his good fortune with a slap up lunch at the Metropole Hotel, incidentally sitting at a table next to Lloyd George.
At that time, prior to the establishment of the N.H.S., most hospitals including the Folkestone one were run on a voluntary basis, supported by the local community with no state grant. Fritz noted the use of leeches in the opthalmic ward, for patients suffering from acute iritis and kerati. This was a form of treatment already obsolete in most centres, but now in the 21st century back in use. His year at Folkestone completed, he became fully qualified and landed a job in the mining village of Woodlands, a few miles outside Doncaster.
Medical attention was provided for the working population under Lloyd George’s National Health Act of 1911 but not their families. A club existed through which the miner’s families paid 3d per person per week to pay for care and drugs, which worked well until there was a strike and no money to spare for such things. The doctors in the practice bought Fritz an ancient Morris car with fabric body for £10 plus £5 for a new battery. It got stolen and was found two days later in a remote area of the Pennines.
By 1937 Fritz felt he knew enough to run his own practice, so back to Folkestone he went. His mother, on a visit from Berlin, spotted a bungalow for sale in Downs Road. There his surgery was established and his home, complete with furniture and stylish black Steinway piano sent over from Berlin by his mother. Over seventy years later, the premises are still owned by the Ewer and Morwood families.
Initially there were few patients for the new doctor and most of his earnings were from locum work for colleagues, he had met at the hospital. Then he successfully treated an old lady around the corner suffering from ascites, (fluid in the abdomen) . Word got round. More patients appeared as well as German refugees, residents of “Sunshine House” run by Gertrude and Fritz Salinger, Wolfgang’s future parents in law. Lilly stayed to help until her marriage to Captain Geoffrey Devine. She was later to run a guest house in Westbourne Gardens.
Meanwhile Fritz’s parents remained in Berlin. The 1938 pogrom sent many professional men to concentration camps. Father never believed that the worst could happen, but when he was debarred from medical practice he realised he must emigrate. Lilly, a British citizen as a result of her marriage, and Fritz sent an application on their parents’ behalf to the Home Office and undertook their maintenance so they were not a burden on public funds. Most of father’s colleagues had been arrested. It was an anxious wait for the British permit to come. The family had been fairly well off and owned two houses, but lost all but their container of furniture which successfully arrived in England. Still at least they were alive.
Downs Road became the home for Fritz and his parents. Mother adapted well and was friendly with the patients but father was a broken man, who sat depressed by the fireside. Bizarrely, on the outbreak of war in 1939, Folkestone received hundreds of evacuee children and their teachers from south London under the mistaken idea that the Channel coast was a safe area. An enormous workload was made even greater by having to help several practices where colleagues had been called up into the forces.
May 1940 marked the start of Fritz’s seven months internment as an enemy alien. After a brief period in Liverpool and the Isle of Man, Fritz ended up in Canada, where initially it did not occur to the authorities that contact between Nazi Germans and Jewish ones was inadvisable. The diet was monotonous in the extreme alternating between salmon and halibut! His medical skills did not go to waste. The clientele in the main seemed to be young men recruited as lumberjacks who would now and then try their axes on their own legs and cut through boots, socks and skin.
On return to England he worked in suburban Surrey as a locum and met his future wife, the talented artist, Peggy Piggott. March 1945 saw his return to Folkestone on the very day that the last German rocket exploded over Southern England. The town gave the appearance of a deserted frontier post, with barbed wire fences and gun emplacements the full length of the Leas. His training in Berlin to conduct home confinements under adverse medical and social conditions stood him in good stead, when faced with two to three home deliveries per week. There was a forceps delivery on the kitchen table and another operative delivery, conducted by light of a pocket torch when the gaslight had to be turned off for the administration of the highly inflammable ether anaesthetic.
The two generations of the Ewer family rented Tower House where Fritz started seeing patients in the afternoon as well as morning and evening sessions at Downs Road.
In 1946 two generations became three with the birth of David, who turned out to have exceptional musical ability. As soon as he could read, he commenced piano lessons with Miss Catford, a wonderful teacher. Readers may have seen him as keyboard player Viv Savage in the 1984 spoof documentary film “This is Spinal Tap”. David’s sister Annette was adopted in 1948 and being artistic fitted into the family very well.
Fritz’ father had joined the practice in 1947. Despite his deafness, he became a very popular doctor, universally known as “Grandpa Ewer”. Later in the same year, Fritz took on as partner Irishman John Morwood, who was still working when Fritz retired from full time medicine thirty or so years later.
Towards the end of his career, Fritz was appointed clinical assistant in the paediatric departments of Folkestone and Dover Hospitals. He retired from full time work at 70 because he could no longer cope with night visits. Once woken up, he was so alert he was unable to go back to sleep. When asked to help an elderly colleague in Sandgate on a part time basis, he agreed and worked on for another nine years until both doctors retired in their 80th years, but indefatigable as ever he still did locum work for another two years. On April 21st just over two weeks before his hundredth birthday, Fritz died at the family home in Sandgate. His devoted wife of 65 years, Peggy, was with him. Maybe the secret for remaining active so long was his daily swim in the Channel!
Fritz was the uncle of Padrayla Holdsworth (her mother Gwen was the sister of Fritz’s wife Peggy.)