The day we left Hitler behind: Survivors of the Kindertransport tell their stories

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The operation brought 10,000 children out of Nazi Germany seventy-five years ago

The operation was called Kindertransport  – Children’s Transport – and it was a passage from hell to freedom. Kristallnacht had just rocked Nazi Germany. The pogroms killed dozens of Jews, burnt hundreds of synagogues, and imprisoned tens of thousands in concentration camps. Many historians see them as the start of Hitler’s Final Solution. Amid the horror, Britain agreed to take in children threatened by the Nazi murder machine.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the first group of children arrived without their parents at the English port of Harwich, and took a train to London’s Liverpool Street station.

Some 10,000 children, most but not all Jewish, would escape the Nazis in the months to come – until the outbreak of war in September 1939, when the borders were closed.

From London the children went to homes and hostels across Britain. But their parents – the few who eventually made it over – were placed in camps as “enemy aliens”.

Many of the children settled in Britain, having found their families wiped out by the Nazis.

These are the stories of five Kinder in their own words. 

OSCAR FINDLING, 91

Oscar Findling, 91: 'In 1942 my mother and father were sent to Belzec. And that was that' (AP) Oscar Findling, 91: 'In 1942 my mother and father were sent to Belzec. And that was that' (AP)
My father was not a German citizen. On the night before Kristallnacht, he was arrested by the Gestapo.

That was the last I saw of my father.

As soon as we found out [about the Kindertransport], my mother went to where the committee was and put my name down. She wouldn’t put my brother down because, she said, “I don’t want to lose both my sons on one day.”

I’ll never forget the last words my mother said: “Will I ever see you again?” 

Prophetic words.

I was two years in a hostel in Manchester. The committee got me a job in a fur shop. Once I was over 18 I was allowed to go to London. In 1944 I got papers from the Ministry of Labour (saying) that I had to go in the Army.

It took me 30 years to get my parents’ story together. Basically they were put in the ghetto in 1941, and in September 1942… they were all put on the cattle trains. They were sent to a place called Belzec, which was one of the well-known gas chambers near Treblinka.

And that was that.

Already 16 when he arrived in June 1939, Findling, who grew up in the eastern German city of Leipzig, is the oldest surviving Kindertransport Kind. After a career in garment manufacturing, he now lives with his second wife in London. 

HERBERT LEVY, 84

Herbert Levy, 84: 'I said goodbye to my grandparents. My grandfather was to die a few weeks later' (AP) Herbert Levy, 84: 'I said goodbye to my grandparents. My grandfather was to die a few weeks later' (AP)
My parents had tried to get out of Germany for many years but it was very difficult to get into anywhere until the British government allowed children to come on the Kindertransport. My parents applied, and by pure luck I was one of the chosen ones. I was not yet 10 years old.

My parents took me to the station. I said goodbye to my grandparents. My grandfather was to die a few weeks later. My grandmother was one of the six million people who died in the extermination camps, with her two sisters, many cousins, many nephews and nieces.

Documenting the past: Herbert Levy's ID card (AP) Documenting the past: Herbert Levy's ID card (AP)
We finally arrived at the border. You can’t imagine the relief of being in Holland, to have passed Nazi Germany.

It was fantastic to feel free at last.

Levy came from Berlin via the Netherlands in June 1939. Months later, his parents joined him. They were interned in a British camp for “enemy aliens”. Levy recalls being greeted with chants of “Bloody Germans!” (“This was quite amazing for me,” he says, “because I had been shouted at as a ‘bloody Jew’ until recently.”) Levy went on to become an actor. His wife, Lillian, survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

THE REV FRANCIS WAHLE, 84

The Rev Francis Wahle, 84: 'The journey was dreary until we got to the Dutch border, when we were given drinks and cake' (AP) The Rev Francis Wahle, 84: 'The journey was dreary until we got to the Dutch border, when we were given drinks and cake' (AP)
Hitler marched into Austria in March 1938. Until that time I was just an ordinary Catholic. I then discovered that I was Jewish as far as Hitler was concerned, because all my four grandparents were Jewish. My parents tried to get us out. As we had relations in Italy the first attempt was to get us out to Italy, but they never got all the right papers. So we started learning English.

I was nine at the time. It was dreary, that journey through Germany, until we came to the Dutch border, and then the ladies provided the kids with soft drinks and a bit of cake.

My sister and I were split up. I was very lucky. I was taken to a place in Sussex. A lady had let the committee have her very large place for  the refugees.

I stayed there until 1940. At that time a new regulation came in that enemy aliens – and of course we were classed as enemy aliens – were not allowed to be within so many miles of the coast because we might be spies. And so we had to leave. I was taken on for free by the Jesuits in a boarding school.

Having escaped death, really, and with my parents’ having escaped death, it’s made me immensely grateful to God, and I suppose the fact of becoming a priest is the result of that.

Wahle and his younger sister Anna left Vienna in January 1939. He was an accountant before studying for the priesthood. Although now retired from his parish, he still works as a priest. Wahle’s parents fled their home as the Gestapo came to arrest them; they went underground, living without papers for three years. Wahle’s father went on to become the most senior judge in Austria.

RUTH BARNETT, 78

  Ruth Barnett, 78: 'The vicar was a lovely man but his wife obviously didn’t want refugees foisted on her' (AP) Ruth Barnett, 78: 'The vicar was a lovely man but his wife obviously didn’t want refugees foisted on her' (AP)
I was only four when I came to England so I have snatches of memory. My dad was a judge in Berlin. He was summarily sacked when the Nazis came into power in 1933. He did get out and he went to Shanghai, which was awful because of the war between Japan and China.

Our mother came with us on the train because being a proper Aryan German she could get a visa. So I experienced it as a family outing. I remember saying, “Are we nearly there? Are we nearly there?”

My mother had to go back [to Germany]. She would have been an enemy once war broke out. She brought us to our first foster family, which was a vicar and his wife in Kent. The vicar  was a lovely man, but his wife obviously didn’t want refugees foisted on her. She was very cruel to us.

Ruth Barnett in Berlin, shortly before she was brought to England in 1939 (AP) Ruth Barnett in Berlin, shortly before she was brought to England in 1939 (AP)
The second foster family… had five children and they treated us exactly the same as their children. But where we were living there  was in the path of the doodlebugs, and that absolutely fazed [my brother] Martin. So we had to be moved. Our third family was on a farm. I was in seventh heaven with the animals.

I had no nationality for the first 18 years of my life. The Nazis… took away citizenship from all the Jews and Gypsies. I had to travel on a document that was a sheet of paper with “person of no nationality” written across the top. It had such a deep effect on me.

Barnett’s father was Jewish but her mother  was not. She arrived in February 1939 with  her older brother, Martin. Having worked  as a psychotherapist, she speaks today in schools about the Holocaust and seeks to  highlight the fate not only of Jews but also  of the hundreds of thousands of Gypsies killed by Hitler.

EVE WILLMAN, 80

  Eve Willman, 80: 'I became one of my aunt and uncle's children. My cousins became my brother and sister' (AP) Eve Willman, 80: 'I became one of my aunt and uncle's children. My cousins became my brother and sister' (AP)
I was five when I came. My father was a doctor. My mother converted to Judaism when she married my father.

I came with another girl who was older than me. The only thing I remember about the journey is stopping at one point and people coming in and giving us a sweet drink. I don’t remember saying goodbye to my parents.

I went to the first foster home – a Unitarian minister and his wife. They didn’t have any children. I remember that she was very strict and precise.

After a year they couldn’t keep me any more and so I went to the next foster home… to an extremely nice family. But one of my uncles, who had been a rabbi, was most concerned  that I didn’t have any Jewish instruction. And so I went to another family. It was not such a nice family.

My uncle and aunt were then established in West Hartlepool. I went there for a holiday. It was such a wonderful turning point in my life somehow. My aunt said, “When you come back, you will be with us for ever.” I was 11. I became one of their children. My cousins became my brother and sister.

My father survived the war. My mother was able to work and she worked in a factory, and the factory was bombed. She was killed just before the end of the war so I never saw her again.

It was really a wonderful thing that the government did to let 10,000 children in who probably would have lost their lives.

But it’s happening again. It isn’t happening to Jews, but look at the children in Syria.

Willman, an only child, arrived from Vienna in April 1939. She later obtained a PhD in biochemistry and worked as a researcher and  biology teacher. She lives in London and has never married.

The Association of Jewish Refugees: ajr.org.uk

The Kindertransport Association: kindertransport.org

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
New Articles
i100... with this review
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Sport
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
i100
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
News
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam