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Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Steven Mendelson was born in 1926 in Breslau, the older of 2 boys. His father was born in Breslau and his paternal grandfather was an important man in the town. His grandfather was the first Jewish Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and ran a large import business in meats from the USA. He had a son and 2 daughters, one of whom was married in Vienna. Steven’s father was in his father’s business. The family were quite assimilated and belonged to the Liberal synagogue. Steven’s mother came from Bonn and she had a sister and a brother, who won the iron cross but was shot in 1940. The sister married an Englishman, who had worked in her father’s printing firm and they moved to England. The family lived in a flat in Kurassierstrasse, a suburb to the south of Breslau and Steven attended the non-Jewish school. He got on well with the children until 1936 when they stopped talking to him. Shortly afterwards the Jewish children had to leave and he went to the Jewish school. They were often attacked by boys from the non-Jewish school nearby as they went home. In 1937 the family moved in with Steven’s paternal grandfather in a 3-storey house in Kleinburgstrasse. His other daughter and husband had recently died of natural causes and their flat on the top floor had become available. On Kristallnacht, the Synagogue was burnt down and although the Gestapo did not find his father and grandfather that night, his father was picked up in the street the next day and taken to Buchenwald. He was released in February but took weeks to recuperate. In the meantime a letter came from England from their relatives offering to act as guarantors if the boys came on the Kindertransport. They were sent in April 1939 and stayed in Maida Vale one week before going to a refugee hostel in Margate. The culture shock was great and everything seemed strange.
They stayed in Rowdon Hall in Margate and attended St John’s Church of England School. His parents came out a day before the outbreak of war and worked in London in the relation’s wholesale stationery business as packers. After a while the children were evacuated to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, where they were billeted with a mining family. They attended the local school and Steven became head prefect. He then became apprenticed to a tool maker in Walsall and attended College in the evening to take his matriculation. He joined the Air Training Corps and then the Home Guard in the Intelligence Section and was Chairman of the Youth Section of the International Club. At the end of his apprenticeship he moved to London and worked as a junior draftsman and he became involved with Habonim as a Madrich, setting up Habonim Groups. He studied engineering part-time at London University. He became a member of the Hagannah and was sent to Europe, to Belgium to help organize illegal transports through France to Palestine. He did this for 3 months before returning to England. He also attended a training camp in the French Alps and passed the course. Early in 1948 he joined a Habonim Kibbutz Hachsharah in Bosham, Hampshire on the Estate of Sigmund Gestetner. He stayed about 9 months and learnt farming.
In October 1948 he travelled to Israel where he joined the infantry of the Israeli army for 8 weeks and then the Scientific Corps. He opened a factory for designing munitions and supervised this until 1952 to further his studies. He lived in London and got divorced. He changed engineering jobs every 2 years and married Hilary Marks from Rhodesia in 1963. He then took a job with a US firm of Management Consultants and was sent to Germany to advise on steel production. He stayed in Germany 3½ years and did not divulge his Jewishness. He came across ex-Nazis but did not let this interfere with his work. He returned to England to Sheffield where 2 steel plants employed him as consultant and bought his present house in 1969. He then worked for Plessey and then returned to work for the US firm of Consultants until 1980 when he was in a serious car crash. He fractured his skull and was in hospital 33 weeks. He was off work for 5 years, and then got a job as Lecturer at the University of Sheffield from 1986-1998.
My father played the violin and my mother played the piano. Because my father had a married sister in Vienna, my parents, as far as I remember, left about three or four times a year for about a week or ten days to go to Vienna to breathe in the culture there – the theatres, concerts…
I was always very popular at school, had lots of friends, who were all non-Jewish of course. We had our secret hideout and the roads in the suburbs were reasonably wide. There was very little traffic. If you saw a motor car once every twenty minutes, that was an event. And because we all had bicycles, we bicycled around in perfect safety. We played robbers and police, on bicycles. But our main activity really was playing football in the streets. And we often broke the neighbours’ windows, for which we used to get a good hiding from our parents because they had to pay for the repair. We also did a lot of scrumping. These houses had lots of fruit trees. It was fantastic.
In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin. Shortly after that we all went back to school and suddenly I noticed that none of my mates would have anything to do with me. I felt very odd and I spoke to one of them. And to give him his due, he was very honest. I said, ‘Fritz, what’s going on? We’re all good friends here but nobody speaks to me’. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘I’ll be very honest with you. My father said I mustn’t play with Jewish kids anymore’. And that was traumatic. Suddenly I was ostracised. Suddenly all my friends- I saw them, you know, as close as you are to me, for instance, but they wouldn’t speak to me.
Those German kids suddenly found out that there was a Jews’ school, as they called it, up on the hill. And so they paid us the compliment of coming to visit us the moment school was finished, about three thirty, four o’clock, sometime in the afternoon. And they were all in the Hitler Youth, of course, and they were well-trained. And so, as we came out of the school, they fell upon us, only the boys. There were only boys involved in this. Girls had their free access. But, you know, there was a type of chivalry in these atrocities as well, I should imagine. But they set upon us. And there were usually three or four of them against one of us. And we used to get beaten up. And we had our satchels interfered with, our shirts torn, our trousers torn. We were bruised, kicked, scratched. We bled and so on and so forth. And this became a daily routine. And there was nothing that one could do about it. We had to sort of put up with it. There were occasions when you couldn’t go back to school the next day, for a day or two, because you were, you know, so badly bruised, or whatever it was. As far as I know, certainly I had never had any limbs broken or anything of that sort, but, it was tough. But it also toughened us up. We naturally tried to defend ourselves, though this was strictly prohibited by law. You’re not allowed to touch a German in a Nazi uniform. You’re not allowed to hit him, you’re not allowed to slap him, you’re not allowed to spit at him, or whatever you want to do. But naturally your natural instinct, when somebody pulls you to the ground and starts kneeling on you and, you know, pummelling you into submission, you obviously try and defend yourself. Naturally, we weren’t all that very successful in that respect.
Every Shabbat & holiday amongst the congregation were 8 Gestapo men in their magnificent uniforms - black uniform, swastika, all that sort of thing - very smart looking. They sat very quietly at the back. The Rabbi was an extremely outspoken man. He was basically there only every 2nd Shabbat because when he was missing he was in prison. They were intelligent enough not to bung him into a concentration camp because he had a considerable influence over the congregation. So whenever he said something that wasn’t liked by the Nazis, they marched very quietly in military style & did this sort of thing to the Rabbi [demonstrates a beckoning motion with his finger] & he followed without any trouble. It didn’t disturb the service in any way, other than of course there was a cut to the sermon. The assistant Rabbi continued with the sermon.