Aged seventeen, Berlin-born Kurt Treitel was one of the older of the 150‒200 Kindertransport children travelling from Berlin via Cuxhaven to London on 24 March 1939 – exceptionally arriving at Waterloo not Liverpool Street Station. Seen off by his mother Hanna, he was met by his uncle (married to an English Jewish woman), who acted as guarantor, and took him to a Lyons Corner House for a meal costing 1/6d. Kurt felt ‘very happy.’ His parents, Theodor (born in Betsche, Germany), Hanna (nee Levy, born in Berlin in 1896), and grandmother soon followed him to Golders Green, London.
Treitel’s lawyer father had had an office in Berlin’s Unter den Linden, and Kurt had ‘good memories of family life’ as ‘reasonably orthodox’ Jews. His first school, however, was non-Jewish, and at fourteen he attended the American School, keeping up his English. Too old to attend school in Britain, his first job was gardening in Golders Green cemetery for £2.00 per week; his father became a store keeper. Neither parent spoke English, hence found life difficult.
Considered a young adult and a political risk as a German alien (albeit a Jewish one), the interviewee was summoned to the local police station in July 1940, from whence he was subsequently interned first in Kempton Park where he slept in the stables and volunteered to work in the kitchen to gain additional food, then in Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Some forty men crowded into the former boarding house where he shared a room with two adults and another young boy ‒ sharing a bed with him owing to the acute shortage. Each house had its own internee cook, with special Kosher food provided on Jewish holidays – a Dr Schoenberg visited from Liverpool to ensure that it was. Apart from the fear of a Nazi invasion of Britain (heightened due to the number of Jews imprisoned together), Kurt ‘did not feel too bad.’ ‘The Manx people were friendly’, and his work was collecting books for the library – though he did not care for either the library or the education widely on offer from erudite internees. Whilst his uncle was interned until spring 1941, Kurt was released in November 1940 on condition that he emigrated to the USA as originally planned; however, visa problems and the war ultimately prevented this.
The interviewee subsequently spent five years tailoring in London’s West End, which he did not particularly like, ‘but it was a job.’ In 1955, he married Renata Elgin, also Jewish and from Berlin. No longer able to work in Germany, her civil engineer father had responded to an advertisement in The Daily Telegraph Continental edition, and brought his family to Britain in 1936. A rich uncle paid for other family members to flee to Shanghai then Australia, while an aunt went to Israel. Kurt Treitel did not want to return to Germany in 1945 nor to live in Israel, and proudly gained British citizenship in the early 1950s. Renata became a Chartered Accountant, and urged Kurt to complete his studies. He became an Articled Clerk with Primhak Solicitors in 1958, and ultimately a Treasury Solicitor.
Nevertheless, Treitel maintained that English Jewry had not helped his family, though it later helped his brother Sir Guenter Treitel, QC, Emeritus Vinerian Professor of English Law at All Souls, Oxford. Kurt joined the AJR with his father in 1940, while Renata joined the AJR and the Holocaust Survival Centre, Church Road, Hendon, where she has attended life-stories classes but has not published anything. Kurt and Renate moved to Dunstan Road in 1958 but were told at that point they could not join Dunstan Road synagogue as it did not accept German Jews. Consequently they became members of Munks shul (also known as the Golders Green Beth Hamedresh). Kurt and Renate only became members of Dunstan Road shul in the 1980s when Renate started having difficulty walking so far to shul.
Kurt ‘did not lose’ many relatives: an uncle spent eight weeks in Sachsenhausen pre-war but was released and fled to Chile, others went to Israel; extended family members ‘left or were kicked out.’ Treitel has ‘got over’ his war-time experiences and their ramifications, but his advice if similar circumstances ever arose, was ‘Get out before you are kicked out.’