top of page

The copyright of all photographs belongs to individual interviewees. Please get in touch for more information

Bessie Barnett

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
1 May 1938
Interview number:


Dr Rosalyn Livshin

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Bessie was born in Florsheim am Main in 1922. Her parents were born in Germany and were religious. Her father had 6 brothers, 2 of whom were killed in the First World War. Her maternal grandparents had a shop and then a hotel in Schmitten, a spa town, and she often visited them as a child. Bessie was the oldest of two children. Her brother, Leopold, was born c 1928. There was only a small Jewish community in Florsheim, about 15 families, and her father was active with the small Synagogue. He was joint owner of a forge, which made pots and pans. Bessie gives a good description of the primitive way of life they led in the village. Bessie went to the local school run by nuns, then to a Gymnasium in Russelheim. She attended Cheder classes with the boys until she was 12. She had many non-Jewish friends until Hitler came. Nazi teachers came to the school and the Jewish children had to leave. Her best friend was no longer allowed to talk to her.


Bessie attended a Jewish School which gave a good Hebrew education but poor secular education. Her father’s business was gradually taken over and the family moved to Frankfurt. Bessie attended a course on learning how to keep a house and do the housework and then she went to help in a Children’s Home on the Swiss border for c3 months. In Frankfurt she belonged first to the Ezra Youth group and then joined Bachad. She attended a Hachsharah with the purpose of emigrating to Palestine and she learnt to milk the cows etc. On Kristallnacht their house was smashed and the next day her father was taken to Buchenwald for 6 weeks. The family tried to find ways to leave the country. Bessie did not get a place to emigrate to Palestine and her parents arranged for her and her brother to go on a Kindertransport to England. They had relatives, the Bilkus family, there and they helped with the arrangements. Bessie’s parents could have gone illegally to Palestine and even sent some of their belongings there but they never went. Bessie’s mother had taken a job as a nurse at a hospital and did not want to leave the children.


In England Bessie briefly stayed with her relatives and worked in their tailor shop. She then went to help in a hostel for refugee boys from Vienna, brought over by Rabbi Schonfeld. Bessie cooked and helped generally. On the outbreak of war the boys were evacuated to Gateshead and the hostel, a condemned building, was demolished. Bessie evacuated with her relations to Burnham-on-Sea but did not stay there long. She came back to London and took a domestic job over the winter with a doctor’s family. She was expected to do all the housework and washing and left when they asked her to light fires on Shabbos. She went to a Chassidic family as a domestic over Pesach and then went to Woburn House to ask for help. They put her in a hostel in Camden Town but she was unhappy and arranged to go to Gateshead. She stayed there for a short while, earning money by childminding and babysitting. On meeting boys there from Guildford she arranged to go back to Guildford with them. She spent Pesach 1941 there and then returned to London where she became a ladies companion for a while. Then she took a room and a job in an office of a tailoring business. She met her husband, Isaac Barnett and the couple married in August 1941.


They lived in her brother-in law’s flat. Her husband, an English born watch maker served in the Ordinance Corps in the army nearby and came home regularly. Bessie, who was pregnant, evacuated in 1942 to Northampton but on being asked to sleep in a single bed with another heavily pregnant woman, decided to return to London and the Blitz. Dorit was born in Feb 1942 and Stanley in May 1943. She evacuated to Crawshaw Booth near Rochdale with the 2 children but returned before Pesach 1944. Except for these short evacuations, she remained in London throughout the war, suffering all the bombing. She never slept in air raid shelters, staying upstairs in her bedroom. They experienced a near miss with the flying bombs when one shattered the windows of her children’s bedroom but no-one was hurt. They took a house with a cellar in Newington Green and from then on slept in the cellar.


After the war Bessie had Judy in 1946 and Barry in 1954. They took a big house on Green Lane opposite Clissold Park on the Seven Sisters Estate and then in 1950 moved to  Woodbury Down Estate near Manor House. Bessie only returned to work after having her 4th child. She worked for Dixon and Liverpool Vic Insurance. Her children attended Avigdor Primary School and a local Secondary School. Dorit went to Israel, married and had 7 children. She has since died. Stanley, an accountant, eventually went to Israel, married and adopted a child, Judy went to Israel and married and had two children. She has since died. Barry never married and went to live in Manchester. Bessie religious observance lapsed slightly during the war and whilst the children were growing up but she has since returned to her prior level of observance. After her husband died in 1994 she became busy with the League of Jewish Women, Wizo, Lubavitch, Social Work for Jewish Care, ran a tuckshop in Wolfson House, a luncheon club and gave lectures. Two years ago after a burglary she moved to Manchester to be near her son Barry.


Bessie feels British and not German. She did not identify any continental identity. She has never wanted to return to Germany and has never received compensation. She has visited Israel many times since 3 of her children moved there. She feels a London girl. She mixes with the religious and non-religious communities but has found it difficult settling in Manchester. She feels safe in England and has not experienced any hostility. Her brother was interned and sent to Canada. He eventually made his way to New York, where he still lives. Her parents were put on a train for Poland in 1941 and there is no word of them since then. She does not know where they died. She has grandchildren in Las Vegas, Australia, Peru, Israel and has traveled to spend time with some of them. The death of her daughters has left its mark.


Full Interview


The first school, I was with the nuns. My parents didn’t want a girl to go in a rough school where the boys are, because my father had a lot of trouble there as well. Because we went past the cross and didn’t say prayers, didn’t bend down to it and they used to hit us. And the nun school was very nice, they looked after us. The only thing, we got in the wrong religion there. I wanted to be confirmed and said, ‘Can’t I have a white dress like they have a white dress?’ I was only little- five or six years old.

And when the Nazis came of course things changed. And the thing is, they had a big assembly and then there was Hitler speak, and the non-Jewish girls thought he was funny and they were all funny. And I dare not laugh because-, you know how hard it is when you are eleven years old and they all think it’s funny and they are all laughing and you mustn’t laugh? It was very, very hard to keep a straight face, because... I don’t know, to me he wasn’t funny because we know he was horrible and everything is changed.

And we came, and Aunty Gussie took us to their business. They had a gown place in London, in the West End. They were making evening gowns. And she spoke to us in Yiddish, which-, we knew German, we knew a little bit of Yiddish, but not an awful lot. And we stayed in their place for a little while. But my uncle and aunt with their whole family was there and another aunt. They had too many people there. So they put me in these domestic jobs, which were no good at all.

Previous Interviewee
Next interviewee
bottom of page