Kindertransport: taking a moment to reflect, nearly 80 years on

Two special guests at a QE Jewish Society event brought to life memories of childhood escape from the Nazis.

The lunchtime event featured Harry Heber, who ca me to England from Austria on the Kindertransport in December 1938 at the age of eight, and Sam Martin, Community Engagement Officer of World Jewish Relief. Kindertransport is the name given to the organised rescue effort in the nine months leading up to the outbreak of World War II, when 10,000 predominantly Jewish children were brought to the UK from territories under Nazi control.

Year 13 pupil Eddy Burchett, who leads the Jewish Society, said: “I aim to bring interesting speakers in each week, so when this opportunity arose it was too good to turn down.

“Jewish Society is open to all and aims to bring everyone together. With this event, I thought I’d try to bring Jewish Society to the people, as it were – everyone is interested in things like the Kindertransport; it is a crucial part of history, and this talk brought history to life.

""“It was a moment to reflect, in the busyness of QE life. It was very moving and really engaging and I was surprised at how much detail Harry could remember of things which happened nearly 80 years ago.”

At the meeting, Sam Martin explained the origins of the charity, which was set up in 1933 as the Central British Fund for German Jewry (CBF). She set out the role it played in the Kindertransport and then subsequently, right through to the Syrian refugee crisis of the last few years. She then introduced Mr Heber, who told his personal story.

""He was born in Innsbruck in 1930 and his early childhood took place in Austria. In March 1938, the Nazis marched unopposed into Austria and the country was annexed into Nazi Germany. In November that year came Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), a nationwide pogrom against Jewish communities. This, said Mr Heber, showed Jewish people that “the Nazis were serious”. Shops were daubed with ‘Juden’, smashed up and set on fire: the boys were shown an image of firemen letting a synagogue burn whilst stopping the fire spreading to neighbouring buildings.

""Mr Heber was in his first term at school and the masters were wearing Nazi symbols. Before long, other boys were following suit and he was asked why he wasn’t wearing one too. “I can’t, I’m Jewish,” he said – “The first time I realised I was different.”

His father went from embassy to embassy in an attempt to secure safe passage out of the country, but demand was high and he was not being successful. The family then heard about the work of the CBF committee and decided to get Harry and his older sister Ruth, three years his senior, out while they still could.

""The pair left on a train on 18th December 1938. They travelled under the cover of darkness, having had to say goodbye to their family before going to the railway station. “It was very emotional, there were lots of tears from my mother and the other parents.”

SS officers searched their luggage on the train, but found they only had the permitted small suitcases cont aining a change of clothes and some extra underwear.

There was a sense of relief when they crossed into The Netherlands – “We’d got out unharmed.” The children were met on the train at this point by a Dutch nurse who gave out chocolate.

""They soon arrived in England and were placed with a family. He and his sister had been told by their parents to “always stick together” and to “look out for each other” – “Don’t let them separate you.”

Harry, who did not speak English, was not happy to begin with. Things improved, however, when he went to a boarding school and could mix with other children. “When you are around other children you find a way to get along and to understand each other – that’s how I learned English.”

""His sister found things difficult because, being older, she understood more and was always asking when they could see their parents. When a vacancy arose in the household (many middle-class families at the time had domestic servants), she lobbied for her mother to be brought over from Austria and given the job. “Then there’s our father, too,” Ruth told the family. “He’s a very handy man. He could look after the garden and do all sorts of jobs.” (At the time, service was the only occupation for which it was permitted to bring people in from Europe to work – not at all like the free movement principles of the European Union, Mr Hebe r explained.) “It wasn’t true [that he was ‘handy’], but it did the trick!” he said. And so the English family agreed to sponsor Harry’s parents and they were able to come to England.

The family were reunited, with the parents arriving three days before the outbreak of war – after which point they would not have been allowed in.

""The family lived initially near Hastings, but had to relocate as part of Britain’s way of dealing with ‘enemy aliens’. They ended up in Kilburn in London.

His parents were entrepreneurial. They obtained plastic sheeting and designed covers for the gas mask boxes that everyone had to carry. “They turned them into a fashion item.”

Ruth won a scholarship to a Gloucestershire grammar school, Stroud High School, so joined the family a couple of years later at 16. She became a fashion designer after the war. Harry stayed at school to take his exams at 16 and then took courses to become an optician. He moved to Bristol, but returned to London when he married his wife, whose family were all based in the capital.

""“I feel very privileged,” he told the lunchtime audience. “I had a family and what felt like a fairly ordinary childhood. Many others who came never saw their families again. They had to make their own way.”

Mr Heber retired in 1996, but remains a regular volunteer with World Jewish Relief .

Some of those who came to Britain on the Kindertransport were very successful – their number included four who went on to become Nobel Prize winners – but others struggled to support themselves, so were helped by the CBF committee; some continue to receive support from World Jewish Relief today.

At the end of the talk, the two guests presented a copy of Amy Zahl Gottlieb’s book, Men of Vision: Anglo-Jewry’s Aid to Victims of the Nazi Régime, to the School. Both had signed the copy, saying they hoped it would inspire the boys as much as it had them. Eddy Burchett accepted the gift.

Afterwards, Samantha Martin wrote to the Headmaster about the welcome she and Mr Heber had received at QE: “All the staff were very helpful and the students were so incredibly polite and well behaved – I wish that every talk I do would be to such an audience.  In particular, Eddy, who helped to arrange the talk, was a delight to deal with and he has since been in touch to thank me for coming in.”