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
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?”
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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