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Ruth Barnett

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Born:
Feb 1939
Kindertransport
Mode of Arrival:

Ruth was born Ruth Michaelis in 1935 in Berlin. In 1939, aged four, Ruth and her seven-year-old brother arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport. Over the next ten years, Ruth and her brother lived with three foster families and in a hostel. She describes the difficlut experiences in her first foster family, Reverend and and Mrs Stead. She was bed wetting and punished for it by being beaten on her back.  After two years, she was sent to a Quaker Boarding school, where things improved for Ruth. She spent a short time in a hostel in Richmond and was then sent to the family Goodricke in Horsmondon, Kent (1943-1944). They were then moved again to another family, the Hoskins in East Harting, Petersfield, Hampshire. Ruth enjoyed life on a farm and was very happy there.

 

Ruth's father had escaped to Shanghai and her mother, who was not Jewish, remained in Germany in hiding until 1945. Ruth thinks her mother had taken part in the Rosenstraße protest in Berlin in which around 200 non-Jewish German women who were married to Jewish men demonstrated outside a building where many of their husbands had been interned by the Gestapo.  Ruth does not know much about the experiences of her mother during the war. Her father returned from Shanghai in 1947/48.

 

In 1949 Ruth was repatriated to Germany against her will on a court order. She could not adjust to life in Germany and felt betrayed by her English foster mother who had let her go back to Germany.  After some time, she came back to the UK to finish her schooling and visited her parents in Germany for the school holidays.  After she finished school, she decided to study dairy management at Reading University (?), where she met her future husband. They settled in London and Ruth worked as a secondary school teacher and then as a psychotherapist.

 

Ruth has three children and two grand-children. She is an active speaker and author. It is very important for her that the Holocaust is seen in the context of other genocides and that the faith of other groups are not forgotten, such as the Roma and Sinti. In the last part of the interview she talks about the importance of dealing with the past, so that the second and third generation can engage with the past constructively.

I remember throwing a tantrum at the station when we were setting off to go to England on the Kindertransport. And I connected that in my mind with being a very, very naughty girl and that's why I was sent away. And if only I could be good, my parents would have me back home. And I never succeeded in being good, because I could never understand what adults wanted of me. I was always getting into trouble, particularly in the first foster family.

Well, they’d sent us to a Quaker boarding school when we were so unhappy in the first placement. Martin said that he got- a doctor came to give us vaccinations. And Martin told the doctor he must look at his sister's back, because I had been beaten regularly with a leather strap, and my back was just welts. I remember having to sleep on my tummy. And I think that got out- reported. The doctor would have found out who our sponsor was, and then we were rescued.

We were forbidden to speak German. And I remember asking Martin, “Why? It's stupid.” And he said, “Well, look around. We're in England and there are English soldiers all around.” Which there were, because there were on manoeuvres in Kent. And he said, “If a soldier hears you speaking German, they'll shoot you. Because England is at war with Germany.” I believed him; I believed everything my brother said. So that's how you learn a language very quickly, if you speak nothing but...

Some of the younger kids [in school] found out I'd come from Germany. I don't know how, but they started doing ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes to me in the playground and calling me a Nazi. And I defended myself by telling them that I couldn't possibly be a Nazi, because I wasn't even German, I was Jewish. I had no idea what Jewish was. But from that moment on, I developed a Jewish identity.

Because Martin and I had to go and meet her [their mother] at the station. I can't remember which station but... I remember... just not knowing what to do. And Martin telling me that – that… she was our mother, and we should be happy to go and see her. And then I remember that he couldn't face her either. But he looked away and... He was ill at ease once she arrived off the train. And- it was an impossible situation. She didn't speak any English, and I didn't know any German. Martin I think had retained some German. But it was an absolutely impossible situation. Very, very painful for everyone... And as soon as she got back to Germany, my father served a court order on my foster parents. And my foster mother, who'd said I was one of the family, had to take me to Germany and leave me there. And that was the final betrayal. That the one person I thought was really there for me... had to leave me. I mean, up here I knew that she had to. I- I- at fourteen I knew what a court order was. But in my guts it was the final betrayal.

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.

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@ Refugee Voices 2020