6. Postwar Emigration

Jews from Poland and Czechoslovakia arrived in Britain in 1939/40 with the governments in exile and armed forces of those countries; among them were political representatives of Polish Jewry, including Szmul Zygielboim, who committed suicide in 1943 in protest against the inaction of the Allied powers in face of the Holocaust. After the end of the war, Jews were among the many thousands of Poles who had fought with the Allies in Italy and elsewhere and were granted permission to live in Britain. Another group of Polish Jews were those who had been living in that part of Poland occupied by the Soviet Union in September 1939 and had been deported to Siberia and Central Asia by the Soviets; they were freed after the German invasion of the Soviet Union and made their way to the Middle East, where they joined the British. Non-Communist Poles could not return home safely after the war; among those who stayed were important artists like Jankel Adler and Josef Herman, father of David Herman, Contributing Editor of AJR Journal. Similarly, many of the Czech Jews who went home at the end of the war were forced to return to Britain by the Communist takeover in 1948.

 

The number of Holocaust survivors who came to Britain after 1945 was small in comparison to the number of Jewish refugees who had arrived before the war. They were also a far less homogeneous group, as they consisted of Jews from a variety of countries occupied by the Nazis. Above all, they differed from the pre-war refugees on account of their appalling experiences in the Nazi camps. They included camp survivors like Gina Turgel, a Polish inmate at Belsen who married a member of the liberating British forces, and Joseph Kagan, who survived the camps in his native Lithuania and went on to manufacture the well-known Gannex rainwear in Britain. They also included German Jews like Marianne Strauss, who had survived in hiding and gained permission to enter Britain through her marriage to a British officer.

 

The British government controlled the immigration of Jews from Europe tightly; it set up the Distressed Relatives Scheme after the war, but by April 1949 only some 6,000 such people had been admitted. A number of young Polish Jews with relatives in Britain were able to come here; they included Roman Kocen, who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 aged ten, arrived in Britain in 1946 knowing not a word of English, and went on to become a highly distinguished neurologist. The government also admitted 732 child survivors who became known as ‘The Boys’, though they included some girls. 300 of these orphan children were flown to Britain on an RAF transport from Prague in August 1945. They were sent for rehabilitation at Windermere, then some went on to Bulldog’s Bank in West Hoathly, Sussex, and Weir Courtney, Surrey, where they were devotedly cared for by staff members like Alice Goldberger, herself a refugee from Berlin. Among these children were the Olympic weightlifter Ben Helfgott and AJR Trustee Joanna Millan. A number of Holocaust survivors from Hungary were also able to make their way to Britain in 1956/57, at the time of the Hungarian Uprising.

I can tell you a lot about Doctor Schonfeld. Not a little bit. He was marvellous. He was wonderful. He was glorious. He was all the things that you can put. All the wonderful adjectives to one man. That’s all he was. Plus being incredibly clever and incredibly brave. ... You want me to smile? Tell me Rabbi Schonfeld, then I smile. Yeah. He was marvellous. He was- to us, he was a god. A god came and took us out. And he really did. He did the most amazing things in order to get those children out. Because it was certainly not easy, to say the least. But apart from anything else- apart from where to get the money for it. Apart from arranging all the- all the things that go with it. All the bureaucracy that goes with it. But, he had to get the children out from convents. He had to get the children out from non-Jewish families who were… hiding them, protecting them. Looking after them. And very often these children became like their own family. When they came and they were very little, they almost forgot who they were.

After the war we tried to put the pieces together. There were a lot of broken people around who came to our house. It was terrible. They had lost families, lost wives, husbands, all coming, all needed money. The hospitals were all full of people who were mentally disturbed.

All I did is to read- Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and the Hungarian leader [Mátyás] Rákosi and the university library contained no other books to, to, to- to read. And that determined really the fact in 1956- people started to leave all of a sudden during this. And all my friends left and I mean I didn’t want to be left behind.

When we arrived to an airport in London, I don’t know which one, I phoned him [Gustav's uncle] - to say we'd arrived. And he said, “Get a taxi and come here.” So I got a taxi and he was standing… on the street [becomes emotional] I, I- I… I find it very difficult to tell this story without being moved. He was standing. He gave me a hug and a kiss. And then turned to the taxi driver and said, “What do I owe you?” And the taxi driver said, “Give him another kiss.” And that was my arrival to England. And that was very nice.

I didn’t even tell my mother that I am going to leave. But although she encouraged me always that- and, but- and she never wanted to leave. And even when my sister escaped in- in- well, she came out with an official visiting visa, but then she didn’t come back in 1975. She left mother behind. And she really was wonderful with both of our departures. Because that time, we thought that we will never see each other again. And when- when it started to get easier to get a passport, of course she came immediately… Visited us in London.

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@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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