9. Heritage and Memory

Many of the 70.000 refugees who found refuge in Britain and settled in many parts of the UK are no longer with us. However, there is still a group of Kindertransport refugees and child survivors who are very active in Holocaust education, as are some members of the second and third generation. The communal institutions which have been built by refugees, such as the Association of Jewish Refugees, Belsize Square Synagogue and the Wiener Library, are by now firmly established in British public life and retain a strong link with the German-Jewish past.

In recent years, the victims of Nazi persecutions, have confronted the traumas of the past and the losses they suffered in the Holocaust. They have written memoirs, taken part in programmes of interviews, appeared in documentaries dealing with the traumatic experiences of persecution, escape and new beginnings, and continue to speak to school children about their lives. Frank Meisler, who had come on a Kindertransport to the UK, created a series of memorials, one of them at Liverpool Street Station, erected in 2006.  

Commemorating and recording the past has become a focus of many institutions. The Imperial War Museum London is launching a newly conceived Holocaust Exhibition in a few years, a new UK Holocaust Memorial (and Learning Centre) is in the process of being created (in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament).

The Association of Jewish Refugees today is proudly committed to the education of future generations about the Holocaust and is the UK’s largest dedicated provider of programmes and projects which promote teaching and learning about the Holocaust. The creation of the ‘Refugee Voices Testimony Archive’, the Blue Plaque scheme, and the ‘My Story’ project are part of the overall endeavour to create a lasting legacy for future generations.  

Well, I’ve lived much longer in England than I lived on the continent but I still feel foreign, foreign to a certain extent, language most probably, I don’t know. I feel a little bit odd among our friends. They are very nice but I feel the odd one out.

I took the view the one thing one shouldn’t acquire is hang-ups about Germany and Austria. If you get a hang-up, or if you carry resentments around with yourself, the person you harm is yourself. It’s you who suffer, not those about whom you have a hang-up, or against whom you have the resentment.

Try to help people, people who are in need, try to give some time, give some effort, give some love to the community, to the people, they desperately need it. You might need it as well sometimes so give it now, whilst you can.

I find myself towards the end of my life, being very frightened again, very worried. Not just for my family but for the world. I shall go to my grave not understanding that people can look down or up to anyone else. I can only acknowledge one race, and that is the human race.

Had life continued as I think it was, and I stress, I think it was, before the 30s… or before the mid-30s, I would have been less aware of problems in the world in general, and in… and the existence of people living in poverty, people living under stress. In other words, emphasising to only a, a limited extent the people living a very different kind of life from my own.

[Her parents] loved coming to Vienna. They wandered around; by this time Vienna looked quite different of course to our first visit was in 1952. It was no longer grey and the music was wonderful. They would wander around they said, as if- As if the years had just fallen away. And… they - they just loved being there, but only just for the time. And it was very different to, I think many people had this love-hate relationship with Vienna that I found later on.

For my eightieth birthday, my two youngest sons bought me tickets, for them and me, to go for a weekend in Vienna. They feel that’s – that’s where I was born. And whilst the people, I didn’t talk to them very much. But we went to the cemetery, we went to Riesenrad you know, we went all over the place. I didn’t think about it. If you think about it too much, you don’t progress, in my view. And I, I – I strongly believe you need to progress. You’re seventy years, eighty years later; you’ve got to remember, always remember, so it shouldn’t happen again. But you’ve also got to progress. That’s the view I have anyway.

Well I’ve so often heard, “Let it never happen again.” But it does. It keeps happening again, wherever it is, all over the world. And… So I suppose it ought to be talked about. But even with all the talking that one does it does happen again. I think human nature must be pretty awful to let these things happen all the time. At the moment we have a refugee situation coming from the Middle East, Syria and so on. And I think peoples’ reactions have been less than warm and whole-hearted. I think we could afford to be more accepting, and perhaps that is my own view, or perhaps it’s because of my own experience. I’m not quite sure which. But I just wish we could be more receptive to other people who have trauma and need us.

I’ve never been back [to Germany]. I have no- I would always say to whoever I meet, you know, “How many Jewish children did your grandfather kill?” So I’m, I’m not… Why should I, you know, make myself miserable?

Pestalozzi Street [Synagogue]. And I’ve actually been back there and it got destroyed by the Germans during Kristallnacht. They burnt the synagogues and it has been reconstructed practically from drawings always the same; it was a very eerie feeling, I know I’m jumping, but the history of it was a very eerie feeling, because it looked the same but it wasn’t the same, because it was different; and actually it was on a Shabbat morning service, and I could sit on my father’s seat where he used to sit but of course nobody in the synagogue had any connection. They were all strangers, completely different, and it struck me, I’m probably the only one here who has been to this synagogue, been going to this synagogue as a boy, with my father, all these years.

I mean, for example, at the moment we’re dealing with the Immigration Bill. And I have an Amendment down, that the government should allow 3,000 unaccompanied children into Britain. Unaccompanied children who are somewhere in Europe, in Calais, or wherever it is. And that’s got quite a lot of attention. I think partly ‘cause, although I don’t like using my own past as a political argument, I have used it a bit this time. Or other people have used it. Cause- And if I say, “Look, I came to Britain with a Kindertransport, on a Kindertransport, and I was given these opportunities, by this country, wonderful opportunities by Britain. And I would like others to have the same opportunities.” I just feel you know that is something I can do...I do like to say that Britain was the only country that took Kindertransport children in Europe. None of the other countries did, so, at least not to the extent that Nicholas Winton managed to persuade the British Government. So I use that as an argument saying Britain was foremost in Europe in dealing with this. Probably the only country. And… we shouldn’t be slamming, slamming the door on others. Doesn’t mean that you can open the door to anybody. But I think unaccompanied children would be a particular priority I’d have thought.

I don’t know a normal life, which, we never had a normal life! The only bit of normal life was before when we went to school in Berlin. Otherwise it’s been sort of …and very often now anybody says to me, “You’re not…Where do you come from? You’ve got an accent.” After all the years over here.

And my mother, who was in 1997 she was 93 years old. That was when the book was published. And she used to say, “How’s it going? How is the book doing?” Now, she wasn’t looking for being famous. She wanted everybody to know. She said, “Everybody has to know what happened during the war. What happened to us. People have to learn.” And so I- it sounds grandiose, but I feel now along with other survivors I have a duty to my parents, and to the survivor community, to share this story. I think it’s…it’s a way of people having to learn. And I find that no matter what programs there are, the reaction to someone who tells a story and says, “I was there and this is what happened to me” always has the most – most immediacy, the most influence.

And that learning what happened to - to the Jewish people, how, how terrible it was, and you know, how six million people, including over a million children, perished. That this is something which should not be repeated. And if you understand it and take in what happened, hopefully, that you will do what you can in whatever small way even if it’s just speaking to other people, and telling them about what you’ve seen, and telling them, sharing even just this experience to try and make people see that they should... stop killing each other.

I don’t hold any…particular animosity against the current group of Germans. When I see an older German I thought “What did you do with the war?” But mostly of course they were children. Real children. Just like I was.

When my eightieth birthday was looming, six years ago, they said, “What would you like for your birthday?” And I said, “Well, what I would like to do is find my roots. I would like to go to my birthplace. I would like to perhaps go to the little village where I was born. Where my mother must have pushed me in a pram. I would like to go to Berlin, where I lived. I must find out the address.” Cause I remembered my father’s address very, very clearly and not my mother’s so it just shows. It was 96 Gneisenaustrasse – I even know- even know how to spell it. And then I wanted to go to Auschwitz. I knew at that time, through the internet, that my father had gone to Auschwitz. I didn’t know before then. So we did that.

So... I went up the side path [to the house in Berlin Dahlem where her parents used to live], ... and I burst into tears. It was sort of something about... being in the place where you were first- when you first were. And of course you don’t - if you’re exiled you don’t have that. You can’t touch the place where you came from.

Well I’ve always taken care to keep in good contact with my family, with my grandchildren and, and great-grandchildren, and so on, right? Always given priority to... to- to them. It’s made me perhaps a little cautious and unadventurous. You know... And ...perhaps the most significant moment... was when I did have an opportunity to stay on in America, in 1955. And no less than a job at Harvard. But Harvard was not then, as far as physiology goes, as good as University College, right? And I decided I had enough with moving country once. And I didn’t really want to make another change and came back to England. That was perhaps the most, the one decision I made... where my past influenced me in a major way.

Just to try to work on one’s own black spots, to get one’s own black spots less black. That’s all I can say. As human beings we all have in us the angel and the devil, so we all have enough to do with ourselves, beyond any theory, religion, or whatever. And that is a battlefield in each of us, of our own angel and our own devil.

Subsequently, in a strange way I have regarded it as an asset being a refugee, because it gave me a broader base. I had experiences of the world. I had lived in Germany and Holland and England, I had worked in America, I have worked in Egypt. So I had seen a bit of the world, a bit of people, and it gave me a, not really satisfaction, but there was a certain satisfaction that I had done these things, you know.

I’ve never understood why the world kept its doors closed to the Jewish people. I’m sure the Holocaust could have been avoided if the world had opened its doors and allowed the Jewish people to leave Germany. Something I can never understand, why the world was so hard to the Jewish people. Have you ever wondered that? Yes?

On one hand I am lucky to be alive, on the other hand, so are you. If they had come over here, they would have done everybody in, because they virtually did everyone in…

I had no wish to go back really. …I can understand now when they talking about second and third generation Holocaust survivors, how sometimes… some psychological help would be very helpful. …I still had this fear up till then about going to Austria and hearing the Austrian accent and the harsh- and the German being spoken, but it left me that day.

I am sorry to say, but we never seem to learn. And that is how I feel. We don’t seem to learn we human beings, not just Jewish… people, I mean human beings from all over the world. We don’t learn from our mistakes; we go and do the same stupid things again… including me.

I’ve been dishing out a little poem which says: ‘I cannot change the way I am, I need not even try, we each are different and unique, no need to question why. If I appear peculiar there’s nothing I can do, so please accept me as I am, as I’m accepting you.’ There, I think that’s as good as anything.

…the importance of everyone- Learning to accept and value other human beings for their qualities. One mustn’t look at colour, one mustn’t look at religion and one mustn’t look at the differences between people. One must think of them all as human beings and we do have something in common with all of them.

I get very upset at, you know, any changes. And... you know I hate any separation of any sort- you know, a saying goodbye or packing suitcases and... I... I feel I- I don't really want to get so close to, to people because I, you know, everyone that you get close to you know you- seems to you know, you- has to go, in some way or another.

I always feel happier in, in company you know, that have either been through the Kindertransport or come from- who are refugees. You know, you feel immediately more comfortable, because you don't have to explain anything, or you know, they've been through the same thing as you have. Because sometimes it's quite difficult to explain to people, you know, what you do, and why you do it and... you know... what’s happened.

Well the only way I can explain it perhaps you know…My happy family life was interrupted and I lost my parents and my sister. And I tried to work myself up to a sort of a useful and nice enough human being. I found my own family and I managed to study so I’ve got something I can say I can be proud of. I’m happy and I’ve got no regrets really. I mean all the things that happened to me in war time and being a refugee I can only make Mr Hitler responsible for it – nobody else. And that’s how it is and I had to come to terms with that. It’s no good saying I resent it in any way because that’s how it is.

And I think it's much better to be open and to be able to say things and explain. It really does widen the whole prospect of, of the whole issue of whether you're a refugee or a minority or something like that. I think we should be within the world, and not outside it. And, and - I think that’s hugely important. And, and we all see the fact that minorities… stick to themselves, feel the world is against them and so on. And that's very bad. You could open yourself to it.

Identity is so important. Having had my identity... ascribed to me first by the Nazis, and then by various experiences I went through, and finally deciding for myself that I was not going to go back to German. That I was going to be Jewish against enormous pressure - from everywhere. I've realised the importance of identity, and that's something that I always focus on in the talks I give. We haven't learnt not to identify people, but to respect their right to their own identity.

Well it was Bertha Leverton’s ...fiftieth anniversary conference – fifti-fiftieth anniversary of our coming to England. That was the first time I heard the word ‘Kindertransport’. That was the first time I was aware of anybody but Martin and I coming to England from Germany. I was absolutely gobsmacked. And... About- about a thousand came to that conference. Mainly survivors, some spouses. And they were all telling their stories to each other on tables where we were sitting and eating. And then I realised, I didn't really know my story. I've never realised how I'd been avoiding it.

I always link my- my story... to what's happening today. Usually, I start as I'm going along, to link it with the problem we have with refugees today, and the awful things people say about refugees. And I tell them in no uncertain terms that refugees do not leave their home in large numbers, unless they absolutely have to because it's too dangerous. And they are coming over and they want to please. They want to work if we would let them. They’re not coming to scrounge. And they need our friendship. And I tell them, look, we've behaved so badly to a lot of refugees who have not gone away again. They don’t go away. Most of them stay here. And if we treat them badly, we’ve got them with a grudge.

And the second major lesson we haven't learned, is to protest earlier. Now... When violence begins, you can stop it if you really want to. But if you turn a blind eye and pretend it's none of your business, it will escalate, and then it will get out of control.

When we came on the plane and I saw Krakow underneath, you know… I started crying. I started crying uncontrollably. It was- it was something which- not that I wanted to, no, it was something absolutely… I, I can’t explain it. And when I got out of the plane, I could not stop crying. I could not- they were waiting with flowers, with this. I couldn’t stop crying. And the husband thought that they were- or they thought that they were going to do some- something nice for me, so they- to take us to the hotel via the street where I lived before the war. And the house- we were to pass the house. It was awful, because I could not stop crying. And I’m not a crying person. Really not. But I couldn’t stop


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@ Refugee Voices 2020