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Gisela Feldman

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:

Interview Summary:

Gisela Feldman (nee Knepel) was born in Berlin in 1923 to parents of Polish origin. Her father was one of 8 and her mother one of 4. Her father came to Berlin when he was 15 following one of his brothers. He also went to Hull in England for a while but returned to Berlin when he could not make a living. He opened a grocery store. He married Chaya in 1920 and she helped in the shop, which was on Reichenberger Strasse. Gisela had a sister Sonja born 2¾ years later. They lived on Liegnitzer Strasse (later East Berlin) in a second floor apartment and they attended the state school. All her friends were non-Jewish and they played well together. Her parents got on well with the neighbours. They did not live in a Jewish area. They attended the Kottbusser Ufer Synagogue and her mother kept an orthodox home. In 1932 they moved to the same street as the shop to a second floor apartment. 

Gisela’s first experience of Nazism came with the May Day March in 1933, when she saw someone being shot. However at school the teacher told the class to treat Gisela the same as before. Then at 11 Gisela was sent to the Jewish School. Her father’s shop was not daubed but the Catholic neighbour’s was for being friendly with them. It was hoped that what was happening would not last. The family went away every summer to the seaside and life was normal for a while but eventually her father was forced to close the shop. Gisela left school and did a dressmaking course since this was a useful skill. Then in October 1938 her father was arrested and sent over the Polish border as a Polish national. He made his way to family there. The morning after Kristallnacht Gisela walked over glass to see if her aunts were alright. They did not witness anything in their area which was not Jewish. 

Over the next number of months her mother sought to emigrate and bought visas for Cuba and tickets for the St Louis. A friend who worked in Customs and Excise stamped their crate and cases so they would not be searched. Arrangements were made for her father to follow on a ship 2 weeks later. For Gisela, the St Louis was a big adventure. Their family saw them off from the station on a Friday night as they left for Hamburg. The drama started when they were not let off the ship in Havana, nor let off at Miami. People tried to commit suicide rather than return to Germany. Gisela kept hoping that eventually they would be allowed to land. The Captain was very sympathetic and did what he could. Eventually England, Holland, Belgium and France agreed to take ¼ each. They docked in Belgium. Gisela who had learnt English for 4 years volunteered them for England and they were put on a cargo boat to Southampton and then on a train to London. They stayed in hotels near Bloomsbury Square. 

Gisela was sent as a cleaner to a convalescent home in Broadstairs, then became an au pair with a Jewish family from London until they evacuated in 1940. she took a job making soldiers’ uniforms, then gun powder bags, then children’s coats and rented a flat with her mother and sister in Highbury and then on the Finchley Road. Her mother took jobs and her sister went to school and then did a professional dressmaking course. Gisela felt a sense of freedom in England. She joined the Czech Club and went to cafes, dances and the cinema in between the air raids. She kept a diary. She met Oscar Feldman from Crakow in 1942 and married February 1943. 

I was always a blue-eyed blonde and the teacher wanted me to be secretary for the Hitler Youth. I declined, but then when it came out that I was Jewish he told all the other children that I was no different from anybody else, they had to still treat me in the same way. So that was very brave of him.

I must come back to us leaving and that the family saw us off at the station. And I must say that even now I cannot see anybody off at the station or at the airport without getting choked, because that memory that I felt at the time, we would never see our relatives again.

I’ve often been asked about the St. Louis. Not so much about what happened to the passengers, but the fact that the world could not take in 900-odd people and save them from what would have been certain death if they’d been sent back to Germany. It shows that the world did not care sufficiently to save us, and in those days there was no such thing as illegal immigrants. Goebbels wrote in the papers to say “nobody else wants them either. At least we’re building camps for them.” For Hitler it gave him carte blanche to do what he wanted to do, because he knew the world wouldn’t do anything about it.


@ AJR Refugee Voices 2020

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GF: Grandfather, Isaac Wurzel, Berlin, ca. 1920s-30s