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Frau Annie

Laura Noller | Lancaster University


On 13th of February 1939, Mrs Annie Wranowsky entered the German Embassy in London to collect her renewed passport, blissfully unaware of the years of torment it would bring her. Back at her home on Sark, one of the Channel Islands which lie between Britain and France, she was known as ‘Frau Annie’, recollected by islanders as the ‘kind and gentle’ stranger who immigrated from Germany in 1934. Her visit to London was a rare nod to Sark’s status as belonging to the British Crown though still an independent feudal state ruled by the formidable yet benevolent Dame Sibyl Hathaway. The tiny, picturesque island, so far from both London and mainland Europe, was a world apart from the turmoil brewing in Eastern Europe. Yet, the impending conflict, and particularly Hitler’s terrible final solution, would follow Wranowsky back to Sark and seal her fate with the single scarlet ‘J’ stamped on her passport.


The infamous ‘J’ stamp, introduced in 1938, signified a person’s Jewish identity and was issued across all German passports. There was just one problem, one which Wranowsky would not truly comprehend the magnitude of until the Nazis occupied the Channel Islands in the summer of 1940, where they remained until the war’s close: Wranowsky was not Jewish.

A photograph of a German passport with a letter "J" stamped in the top-left corner.
German passport with the imprint of the letter "J" for Jew, much like Annie Wranowsky's (public domain).

Her Jewish identity, or lack thereof, has been one of the greatest mysteries of Sark’s occupation. She has been considered by historians such as Eric Lee and Frederick Cohen to be Jewish, in congruence with her passport records. However, the letter in which Guernsey Island Police reported her passport information to the German authorities, held in the Guernsey Archives, details that:


‘Enquiries have been made by the Senechal [sic] of Sark… She states that neither her parents nor grandparents were Jews and that she can trace back five generations in her family without encountering Jewish blood. Her passport, No. 558, issued in London 13/2/39, is stamped with a “J”.’


In my research, I discovered that Wranowsky was telling the truth, which refutes every assumption of the current historiography. Tracing her ancestry back to the parish records of České Budĕjovice, Wranowsky’s hometown in modern-day Czechia, revealed Roman Catholic birth, marriage, and death records for four, if not five, generations of Wranowsky’s family housed in the State Archives Třeboň. As Cohen cites, the Nazi definition of Jewish identity, implemented on Sark, was ‘Any person having at least three grandparents of pure Jewish blood shall be deemed to be a Jew’. Wranowsky is excluded from the Third Reich’s definition of Jewish identity. In fact, she was clearly from a long line of Catholics, begging the question: what could have caused her to be misidentified?


The answer lies in the obscure Eastern European tradition of ethnic adoption. According to the historian Jeremy King, in České Budĕjovice there was a tradition of married women ‘adopting’ their husband’s ethnicity. Additionally, Alan E. Steinweis points out that the Nazi party proposed the prohibition of Rassenschande, that is, intermarriage between Aryans and non-Aryans, in the Nuremberg Laws. Whilst never explicitly defined in the laws’ phraseology, neither was this sentiment denied, thus allowing for stipulations such as the one implemented on Sark in 1941, when the occupiers added ‘Any person [who] is married to a Jew or subsequently marries a Jew; shall be deemed to be a Jew’.


When Wranowsky moved from Bohemia (now Czechia) to Germany upon the dissolution of her first marriage, she remarried a Polish doctor practising in Berlin named Bruno Sklarek. Twenty years her senior, Sklarek had also been married previously, specifically to a woman named Amelie Charlotte Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was Jewish and would later be persecuted for this under the Third Reich, though Sklarek would die before he faced any consequences for his association with her. Wranowsky, however, would face those consequences in his stead. Sklarek’s marriage to Hirschfeld made him, legally, ‘Jewish by proxy’, and when he married Wranowsky in September 1926, she joined him in this categorisation. Even though by the time she moved to Sark, she had divorced Sklarek, the assumption of Wranowsky’s Jewish identity remained.


How, therefore, did she escape deportation? This was clearly no easy task, given that several Jewish women deported from the neighbouring island of Guernsey in 1942 were later tragically murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. For Wranowsky, this was a matter of life and death. Yet, the archives alone provide no closure on Wranowsky’s quest to prove or disprove her identity, indicating that the questions surrounding her were enough to keep her from deportation.


Deportation orders landed heavily on Wranowsky’s doorstep on February 5th, 1943. Yet, with a shocking spirit of insurgence, Wranowsky returned these orders, now stored in the Yad Vashem Archives, with an attached handwritten note, indicating that she was of ‘German nationality, has a Jewish passport and is presently trying to prove her Aryan origin’. This seemingly refers to a trip Wranowsky made to Guernsey two months later, for which she had to obtain a special permit, listing her reason for the journey as to obtain ‘proof of Aryan descent and dental medicine’. No records exist indicating that she was successful in this goal, however, the ‘J’ stamp on Wranowsky’s passport was clearly insufficient for occupiers and island authorities to come to a final damning decision on her case. Yet, as Jews were treated so harshly elsewhere in occupied Europe, such as Poland where they were rounded up and shot without any such opportunity to contest their identity, something more than uncertainty over her identity must have saved Wranowsky from deportation. This, too, is a great mystery of Sark’s occupation and, for the second time in Wranowsky’s story, the answer to this mystery lies in the customs of the place in which she lived.


Whilst Madeleine Bunting’s assessment of the Channel Islands being a ‘model occupation’ is perhaps an oversimplification of the nuanced experiences of resistance and collaboration on the Channel Islands, this region did receive a decidedly more lenient occupation than much of occupied Europe. The Islands’ relative isolation and small population size created high levels of interdependence between soldiers and islanders, who lived in close proximity and shared key resources.

On Sark, Wranowsky was one of few German speakers and thus invaluable to the occupiers. By March 1942, the Nazis’ ideological occupation of Sark had progressed to the point that German was a mandatory subject in the island’s school. Hence, Wranowsky was recruited to be the German teacher, yet the Nazi authorities were reticent to allow this. In June 1942, Guernsey’s Feldkommandantur requested that the Dame of Sark remove Wranowsky from the position if any other candidate could be found. With no response, a second letter, now stored in the Guernsey Archives, followed three days later, more insistent. The burden of not only Wranowsky’s teaching position but also her life, with deportations looming in early 1943, now rested on the shoulders of Dame Hathaway.


Hathaway was herself fluent in German and participated in unusually friendly relations with the German occupiers. Indeed, Kommandant Masgam, the Nazi authority over the islands from 1943-1945, described his interactions with the Dame fondly, recalling: ‘they never disagreed about anything, and that their amicable discussions usually ended in tea and a game of bridge’. Whilst these interactions would lead to Hathaway being branded a ‘Quisling’ by some, her wider actions indicate her astute social manipulation of the occupiers to win leniency for the people she governed. Indeed, Wranowsky’s status as a subject of the Dame, being a resident of Sark, would prove crucial to her ultimate survival. Once again, Wranowsky’s fate was inextricably tied to her geographical position, though this time not through cultural tradition or legal imposition but, instead, through proximity to the Dame.


A choice faced Hathaway as she penned her response to the authorities regarding Wranowsky. She could admit that there were a surprising number of other Sark residents with a grasp of the German language. For example, Phyllis Baker was a woman on Sark who had studied enough German to be regularly used as a translator by the Nazi army doctors who attended the islanders under occupation. Even more damning was the Dame’s own fluency, her having lived in Germany for some time before ascending to the title of Dame of Sark. Yet, the Dame seemingly could not allow herself to hand over one of her people and instead penned a defiant reply, ironically in perfect German, saying: ‘Except for Mrs. Wranowsky there is no German in Sark, and I am convinced that only a German can really teach children the German language’. With her textbook mixture of quiet flattery and clever partial truths, the Dame had handed Wranowsky her salvation. A reply from the occupying forces came less than a month later, granting Wranowsky permission to remain in her teaching post, a post she remained in until the war’s close.


Throughout Wranowsky’s story, it is evident that location was the determining factor in her fate. When in Eastern Europe it brought the tradition of ethnic adoption which almost proved deadly, and when in Sark, a combination of geographical factors came together to rescue Wranowsky from the machine of the Holocaust. Only on Sark, where there were so few German speakers, a bold enough leader in the Dame, and a lenient enough occupation that could allow Wranowksy to attempt to ‘prove her ethnicity’, could Wranowsky have survived. Wranowsky’s story, whilst small within the wider context of Holocaust and occupation histories, sheds a fascinating light on just how influential a person’s location can be when they are caught in the centre of global conflict, as well as how seemingly small actions, such as the Dame’s response, can save lives.

 

Further Reading:

  • Gilly Carr, Paul Sanders, and Louise Willmot, Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-45 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

  • David Fraser, The Jews of the Channel Islands and the Rule of Law, 1940-1945 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2000).

  • Sibyl Hathaway, Dame of Sark (London: Heinemann, 1961).


Laura Noller is a postgraduate student at Lancaster University. Her current research focuses on points of contact between Nazi troops and civilians on the Channel Islands between 1940-1945 with a focus on social history metrics such as food exchange and medical care. This research is sponsored by the ESRC. Her undergraduate research uncovered the story of Annie Wranowsky, the thesis paper of which she is happy to share with those who get in contact via her LinkedIn.


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