Theatrical milliner and antique dealer
Theatrical milliner and antique dealer
Born: November 12, 1925; Died: May 21, 2014
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SONJA Regina Hancox, who has died aged 88, was a theatrical milliner, antique dealer and intellectual who grew up in Berlin under the Nazis and fled the persecution of the Jews with her mother at the start of the Second World War. She eventually settled in Scotland and ran an antique shop on Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow from which she supplied props for the BBC.
She was born in Berlin during the turbulent interwar years to Elsa Reuben and Noach Goldman. Her parents separated when she was young, but it was a happy childhood.
Her mother was a successful entrepreneur, opening a series of tobacconist shops which she later converted to laundries in the 1930s. As the National Socialists came to power and Germans found themselves with spending money in their pockets, the demand for dry cleaning and alteration services grew rapidly, and her mother's business thrived. Because of this, the family lived in comfortable circumstances, with nannies and maids.
Things changed dramatically however with Kristallnacht when Jewish businesses were attacked and there was a clampdown on Jews in Berlin. Mrs Hancox's mother, Elsa grabbed a book from the piles the Germans burned in the Berlin streets and ended up in police custody only to be freed by German friends.
The young Sonja attended Berlin's Jewish school and had to wear the yellow star and was increasingly terrified and wanted to get out of Germany.
In 1938, her father Noach was detained by the Nazis. He was put on a train to Poland before being freed when a bribe was paid by his wife to get him back.
Many others were not so lucky and ended up in concentration camps. Noach (who had separated from Elsa shortly after their daughter's birth) managed to get a visa for Siam (now Thailand) through a secretary at the Siamese Embassy who also wanted to leave Berlin. Despite this, mother and daughter remained in Berlin. Elsa was convinced Hitler would be assassinated, and although the situation for Jews in Berlin was getting steadily worse, her business continued to thrive and she was reluctant to leave. The family also supported and housed many other Jewish people who found themselves unable to work.
It was Mrs Hancox, though, who eventually took action to get herself and her mother out of Berlin. Aged 13, she wrote to everyone she could think of, trying to get visas to exit Germany. She was determined not to leave without her mother on the Kindertransport which allowed unaccompanied children to be evacuated without their parents.
Visas for adult Jews to enter Britain were hard to get and it was with considerable luck that one of the letters arrived in the hands of a school friend of Elsa's who was then running the refugee service of the Red Cross in London. She arranged visas but even then, Elsa was reluctant to leave Berlin. She was still helping many other Jews to survive and also had businesses to run.
In July 1939, mother and daughter left Berlin on the last day that their visa was valid. They drove through Germany from Berlin to Hamburg and left the car with keys in the ignition on the quayside.
Boarding the ship, Elsa could not find the passports or visas which had been packed in a safe place. Again they were lucky that the captain allowed them on board without showing papers - the papers were found on board. Thus they left Germany just as to the Second World War was starting and when things were already extremely dangerous for German Jews.
Before leaving, Sonja Hancox had to visit and say goodbye to her grandparents Emil and Ella, who had no intention of leaving. She knew she would not see them again.
Indeed in 1942, Emil died in police custody, the day after "gifting" his house and cigar factory to the German state. None of the Jewish community that remained in Bunde survived the war. Arriving in wartime Britain as alien refugees was a shock to both Mrs Hancox and her mother. The older woman found work in service as a cook at a stately home. She said she could not cook (in Berlin she mostly ate out) but it did not much matter, she said, as no-one in England seemed to be able to cook.
Mrs Hancox found that she was not welcome when the owner found out that she was of school age - and ended up in a refugee hostel in Birmingham. She found a lot to enjoy about life in the hostel and made many friends.
Later, she moved to Birmingham and with her mother ran a boarding house for foreign students. She had developed a love for theatre in London, and got a job as a theatrical milliner with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
She married in 1951 and the work of her engineer husband, Hank Hancox brought them to Scotland where they established a family.
Her father Noach eventually was returned to Britain in 1952 by the Red Cross from Shanghai where he had spent the war and Mrs Hancox discovered she had a half brother Robert who she knew nothing about who also came to stay in Britain, before settling in California.
She had a keen intellect, but her schooling had been disrupted by the traumas of living thorough the rise of Nazi Germany. The German state offered a degree of compensation for the disruption to education - known affectionately as Ignorance Money.
Despite this, Mrs Hancox's homes in Gartocharn, Helensburgh and latterly Glasgow were full of books and attracted a wide circle of friends including architects, scientists, artists, authors and innovative thinkers.
She started an antique shop called The Industrial Revolution in Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow in the 1970s and loved the characters and the sociability of the antique business, auctions in particular. The shop also supplied theatrical props to various films and dramas being made at the BBC headquarters just up the road.
Her genius really was with people. She loved holding parties and her Glasgow home had a so-called pudding room where enormous trifles and cakes were assembled (and eaten). But people loved having lunch with her just as much.
"An hour with Sonja is like reading a book," was how one friend described it.
She loved holding court in her kitchen in Glasgow, remaining intellectually sharp until the end. She died peacefully at home with her children around her.
She is survived by her children Andrew, Marion and John, and also step children Tanya and Sonia, and has many grandchildren. Her beloved Hank died in 2000.
By her own assessment, she lived a remarkably, rich and lucky life, despite or perhaps oddly due to, the extraordinary circumstances of growing up in Berlin under the Nazis.