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Sir Ralph Kohn

1/14
Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Born:
20th of May 1940
Came with parents on the SS Bodegraven
Mode of Arrival:

Sir Ralph Kohn was born in December 1927 in Leipzig. His mother Lena Aschheim came from Berlin and got engaged to Max Kohn from Kalusz in Galicia (today Poland) in 1913 before Max evaded military service and went to Holland. He was very orthodox and turned to his spiritual leader the Chortkov Rebbe to get advise on how to deal with the engagement. The Chortkov Rebbe told him that he had given his word and had to wait for the end of the war to get married to his betrothed. So they got married and had four children, Sir Ralph being the youngest one. His father ran a successful textile business in Leipzig, not having had a proper education himself, it was his priority to give all his children anything they needed to prosper academically. After Hitler came to power in 1933 his father immediately decided to move his family out of Germany. Due to his experience growing up in anti-Semitic Galicia with frequent pogroms, he didn’t want to take any chances. The family settled well in Holland in a short time, the children learnt Dutch and the father set up a new business and found an adequate orthodox synagogue.

 

On the 10th of May 1940 it was clear that the Germans wouldn’t respect the Netherland’s neutrality and invaded the country. The Jewish community discussed what to do, when Sir Ralph’s cousin Gershon, who worked in a Jewish orphanage came home with dramatic news. The last ship, “SS Bodegraven” would leave the Ijmuiden harbour in the evening to save the 70 Kindertransportees (organised by the famous Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer) and there was place for additional 200 people on board. The condition was that they didn’t bring luggage and would leave immediately to the meeting point where buses waited which would take them to the harbour. The family decided on the spot to leave and under spectacular circumstances they made it to the bus and in the end on board the ship. When it left they didn’t even know its destination. They arrived in Liverpool and went on to Salford near Manchester as his father wanted to get back into the textile business. Sir Ralph went to primary school and then later to Salford Grammar School to study pharmacology, which became one of his life-long passions. Scholarships took him to Rome where he worked with distinguished scientists (Daniel Bovet and Ernst Chain) and rediscovered his passion and gift for music. He took singing lessons which would later lead to recitals in Wigmore Hall and founding the “International Song Competition at Wigmore Hall”. After another scholarship in the US he decided to come back to England to get settled. He set up several companies among which is the “Advisory Services, Clinical and General” to advice on the safety and testing of drugs.

 

In 1963 he got married to his wife Zahava, who like him is from an orthodox continental Jewish background. She is a Holocaust survivor and was also interviewed for Refugee Voices. They have three daughters who themselves have distinguished careers. Sir Ralph was knighted for services to science, music and charity. He and his wife have been to Leipzig many times as they are involved in supporting the Bach Archiv and Bach Scholarship, Bach Research et cetera and have made many friends in this capacity in Leipzig. He has learnt that you should live your life with enthusiasm and not dwell too much on things, which haven’t gone right because there may be a far greater thing still ahead. Never be diverted from what you would like to achieve in life.    

 

Key words: Leipzig; Amsterdam; Chorkov Rebbe; SS Bodegraven; Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer; Dutch Kindertransport; Salford; Pharmacology; Wigmore Hall; Bach Archiv; Bach Research. Aschheim-Zondek

On the Tuesday morning - that’s four or five days after the invasion of Holland - which was on the Friday morning. On the Tuesday morning my cousin, Gershon, who was living with us, comes back from having been somewhere, right? We didn’t know where. And he comes in, at noon, to the house and there were several fellow …Jews who had accumulated. What do we do, etc, etc.? And Gershon comes in and says, “I have one way of getting out of Holland. And it’s as follows: There is one ship, leaving IJmuiden which is the harbour of Amsterdam; it’s on the North Sea. It’s leaving this evening. It’s now twelve o’clock. And you’ve got to get- If you want to do this, you have to leave everything you’ve got. There will be no suitcases, because we are going by bus. There will be half a dozen buses organised from the Jewish Community Centre, which are going to Ijmuiden, to a boat which will take us… we don’t know where. Destination unknown. Now, are you interested in going there?” And this was a new situation. There was a scheme! There was a plan, which we didn’t have before. And I do remember the discussions which went on. And first they said, there were several men there and they said, “Well maybe the men ought to go and leave the women behind.” Because they were… And then others said, “Well maybe we shouldn’t go at all. And then others again said, our family said, said, “We would be quite willing to go.” And I am, I believe that I was, because my father also thought, should only he and my brother Maurice go, and that I would stay behind with the family, with the rest of the family. And I understand that I made a big fuss, but I don’t remember it. And I said, “Oh, no, no. We’re all going, or we’re not going. There’s no splitting up of the family.” And that was agreed. So the family went.

I’ve read quite a bit about her, this Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer. She was an extraordinarily refined woman. Aristocratic woman. And the children loved her dearly. And they wanted very much, you know as long as she was with them, you know, the children were - felt that it was their mother, you know, who was really travelling with them. And she also felt that she must reassure the children. So as a consequence, she left in her memoirs she says this. She left her handbag when she boarded the ship, she took her handbag and she left it on the board that the children should see. “I’m leaving the handbag. I’m with you here of course. I’ve still got a few things to do.

We were never separated. This, I think- People have said, many times to ask me about, “You know, you are refugees…” But my answer’s always been, you know, if you were on your own, and if you came as a child, then all sorts of things happen. You’ve lost your parents or… your siblings. You’re alone in a strange environment. Your language… isn’t what the one you’re used to. And many problems arise. But I think, the status and the sanity of those who came with parents and children, it’s a different story.

Thirty-three… it’s interesting. My father, having sort of lived through the sort of brutality of Eastern European sort of …people. Particularly the Cossacks, and all, and various other organisations and where the Eastern European Jewish communities were from time to time seriously attacked, even massacred and so forth. They always felt - had a great feel of insecurity. And that of course when my father came to Germany, I mean primarily in order to keep the family going back home. But… having already from a very early age, left his, his birth- his country of birth, there’s always a sense of insecurity. And people have asked me many times, “Why is it that you left immediately in 1933?” The majority of people left much later.

I’ve read quite a bit about her, this Truus Wijsmuller-Meijer. She was an extraordinarily refined woman. Aristocratic woman. And the children loved her dearly. And they wanted very much, you know as long as she was with them, you know, the children were - felt that it was their mother, you know, who was really travelling with them. And she also felt that she must reassure the children. So as a consequence, she left in her memoirs she says this. She left her handbag when she boarded the ship, she took her handbag and she left it on the board that the children should see. “I’m leaving the handbag. I’m with you here of course. I’ve still got a few things to do.

We were never separated. This, I think- People have said, many times to ask me about, “You know, you are refugees…” But my answer’s always been, you know, if you were on your own, and if you came as a child, then all sorts of things happen. You’ve lost your parents or… your siblings. You’re alone in a strange environment. Your language… isn’t what the one you’re used to. And many problems arise. But I think, the status and the sanity of those who came with parents and children, it’s a different story.

I know for example somebody very well-known here, who said to me once, they said, “You know we have behaved like criminals in, in Dresden. We should have never done that. This great city. Doesn’t matter. If they’ve killed so many Germans, I wouldn’t care, but how can you destroy a city like that?” Well, you know, I don’t hold this view. I think- ]My personal view is, “You should have felt the pain yourself. You can’t go around murdering people right left and centre, and the Einsatzkommandos, all those – all those gangsters to go around, and what they’ve done to not only Jews but others as well. Killed so many millions of innocent people.

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@ Refugee Voices 2019