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Gisela Feldman

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
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Dr Rosalyn Livshin

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Gisela Feldman (nee Knepel) was born in Berlin in 1923 to parents of Polish origin. Her father was one of 8 and her mother one of 4. Her father came to Berlin when he was 15 following one of his brothers. He also went to Hull in England for a while but returned to Berlin when he could not make a living. He opened a grocery store. He married Chaya in 1920 and she helped in the shop, which was on Reichenberger Strasse. Gisela had a sister Sonja born 2¾ years later. They lived on Liegnitzer Strasse (later East Berlin) in a second floor apartment and they attended the state school. All her friends were non-Jewish and they played well together. Her parents got on well with the neighbours. They did not live in a Jewish area. They attended the Kottbusser Ufer Synagogue and her mother kept an orthodox home. In 1932 they moved to the same street as the shop to a second floor apartment. 

Gisela’s first experience of Nazism came with the May Day March in 1933, when she saw someone being shot. However at school the teacher told the class to treat Gisela the same as before. Then at 11 Gisela was sent to the Jewish School. Her father’s shop was not daubed but the Catholic neighbour’s was for being friendly with them. It was hoped that what was happening would not last. The family went away every summer to the seaside and life was normal for a while but eventually her father was forced to close the shop. Gisela left school and did a dressmaking course since this was a useful skill. Then in October 1938 her father was arrested and sent over the Polish border as a Polish national. He made his way to family there. The morning after Kristallnacht Gisela walked over glass to see if her aunts were alright. They did not witness anything in their area which was not Jewish. 

Over the next number of months her mother sought to emigrate and bought visas for Cuba and tickets for the St Louis. A friend who worked in Customs and Excise stamped their crate and cases so they would not be searched. Arrangements were made for her father to follow on a ship 2 weeks later. For Gisela, the St Louis was a big adventure. Their family saw them off from the station on a Friday night as they left for Hamburg. The drama started when they were not let off the ship in Havana, nor let off at Miami. People tried to commit suicide rather than return to Germany. Gisela kept hoping that eventually they would be allowed to land. The Captain was very sympathetic and did what he could. Eventually England, Holland, Belgium and France agreed to take ¼ each. They docked in Belgium. Gisela who had learnt English for 4 years volunteered them for England and they were put on a cargo boat to Southampton and then on a train to London. They stayed in hotels near Bloomsbury Square. 

Gisela was sent as a cleaner to a convalescent home in Broadstairs, then became an au pair with a Jewish family from London until they evacuated in 1940. she took a job making soldiers’ uniforms, then gun powder bags, then children’s coats and rented a flat with her mother and sister in Highbury and then on the Finchley Road. Her mother took jobs and her sister went to school and then did a professional dressmaking course. Gisela felt a sense of freedom in England. She joined the Czech Club and went to cafes, dances and the cinema in between the air raids. She kept a diary. She met Oscar Feldman from Crakow in 1942 and married February 1943. 


Full Interview


I was always a blue-eyed blonde and the teacher wanted me to be secretary for the Hitler Youth. I declined, but then when it came out that I was Jewish he told all the other children that I was no different from anybody else, they had to still treat me in the same way. So that was very brave of him.

I must come back to us leaving and that the family saw us off at the station. And I must say that even now I cannot see anybody off at the station or at the airport without getting choked, because that memory that I felt at the time, we would never see our relatives again.

I’ve often been asked about the St. Louis. Not so much about what happened to the passengers, but the fact that the world could not take in 900-odd people and save them from what would have been certain death if they’d been sent back to Germany. It shows that the world did not care sufficiently to save us, and in those days there was no such thing as illegal immigrants. Goebbels wrote in the papers to say “nobody else wants them either. At least we’re building camps for them.” For Hitler it gave him carte blanche to do what he wanted to do, because he knew the world wouldn’t do anything about it.

After war had broken out, I met a Jewish family on the beach and they needed an au pair girl, and so they asked me to come with them to London and be an au pair girl. And in the convalescent home I got half a crown a week, I don’t know how you work that out the equivalent of it now, and these people offered me ten shillings a week, which was half a pound then, wasn’t it, which was wonderful and also I could go back to London and see my mother. So I went with that family to their home in Hendon and I looked after two children of six and eleven. By that time I was sixteen and I did all the cooking and all the cleaning. And I’d never done anything at home. I used to phone my mother and ask her how to cook a meal. But it seemed to work alright because they put my money up by another half a crown very quickly and had a nice outfit tailored for me and although I did all the work, I always ate with them, they treated me like a member of the family.

I lived in Hendon with that family. I think they really relied on me for everything because the woman went to work, and when she didn’t work, she stayed in bed reading novels, and I had to write the notes to school when the kids were ill. Now what the notes were like I don’t know, the teacher must have been very amused, because after three months in England, what did I know?

We were all put into hotels round Bloomsbury Square and we spent some time in the hotel and then they had to decide what to do with us subsequently, because as you know, there was no social security in those days, and you weren’t allowed to do any work except cleaning, and so one of the girls on the boat and I were sent to a Jewish convalescent home in Broadstairs to do the cleaning there. I was fifteen then.

When I was sent to that Jewish convalescent home in Broadstairs, I must say it was not the hard work that made us unhappy, but the fact that we got so little to eat. The matron wasn’t very kind to us and we were always hungry and then we walked along the beach in Broadstairs and we met Czech soldiers, Jewish Czech soldiers, that had come from Czechoslovakia and they took us to their canteen and the cook fed us, so that was quite good.

We sent a telegram to Roosevelt saying 'Build a camp & let us in or at least the children.' Without success. Eventually we were running out of food, water, fuel. The captain had to make the decision to go back towards Germany. In the harbour of Havana a man rushed towards me with blood dripping from his wrists & jumped into the water. A crew member jumped after & pulled him out. Those people who had been let out of concentration camps because they could show that they could leave the country had to sign a form to say that they would never return to Germany. He had signed this form & just couldn’t take it, so he tried to commit suicide. They took him to hospital in Havana, where he tried to smash his head into a mirror but he didn’t succeed. But when we were eventually cruising back towards Germany, because we’d run out of everything & we had patrols going through all the cabins & gangways to make sure nobody else attempted suicide, because of course the thought of going back to Germany was an awful thing.

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