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John Goldsmith

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
1 July 1937
Interview number:


Dr Rosalyn Livshin

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Henry John Goldsmith, known as John Goldsmith, was born in Oberkassel, Germany in 1924. He was an only child. His father was a grain importer and his grandfather was a civil commercial judge for which he received a special award. His mother was a dental surgeon from the University of Cologne. His parents divorced when he was 7 and his mother remarried. John went to live for a time with his grandmother. On the whole he had a happy childhood. His step-father, a dentist, was murdered in 1933 by the Nazis and although there was a court case no-one was charged. John and his mother went to his uncle in Amsterdam after this and John lived there, whilst his mother worked in Brussels until 1937. John attended school and had his Bar Mitzvah there. They frequently visited his father and grandmother in Germany. 

In 1937 John’s mother was given permission under a British government scheme to come to the country to work as a dentist without re-training. Through Mrs Berkhill she found a position in Cambridge. John attended Leys School there was interned in 1940 on his 16th birthday. He was taken to Huyton, then to the Isle of Man and then in July 1940 he was put on the SS Sobieski, a Polish ship and taken to Canada. He came back in Jan 1941 and returned to school to take his exams, which he had missed. He got a place for dentistry in Guys Hospital, London University, and in his first term transferred to medicine. After qualifying he worked as a houseman in Guys and then somewhere else before joining the RAMC in 1948 for one year. He served in Egypt and for a short time in Ireland. He never experienced any antisemitism. 

On returning, he went to work in a teaching hospital in Birmingham and slowly worked his way up the ladder. He then worked at Great Ormond Street, then Central Middlesex and then Leicester and Sheffield teaching hospitals.


Full Interview


It must have been about ‘32. It was a horrid time. I remember listening to Hitler’s broadcasts on a little old-fashioned radio, you know, with an accumulator that had to be recharged, a small thing … yes … There were worries, but everybody used to think that, oh well, come the next election they would realise the error of their ways, but it didn’t happen.

Subsequently, in a strange way I have regarded it as an asset being a refugee, because it gave me a broader base. I had experiences of the world. I had lived in Germany and Holland and England, I had worked in America, I have worked in Egypt. So I had seen a bit of the world, a bit of people, and it gave me a, not really satisfaction, but there was a certain satisfaction that I had done these things, you know.

He [stepfather Alfred Meyer] had quite strong left wing political views, a lot of girlfriends. He was a wonderful dentist with a high reputation & a good practice. Now the local Gauleiter was also a dentist in the same place, with a poor practice. They were gunning for him. He was kidnapped from the house of another Jewish dentist in Düsseldorf, my mother was there, bundled into a car & would never have been seen again except that they'd attached a book press to his body. He was shot in the car, they attached a book press to his body & they dumped him in a huge water reservoir, the book press became detached & he floated to the surface & that is how he was found. Now, look: the Judiciary were already Nazified [in 1933]. Nobody was punished. My mother knew who it was, at least who the instigator was, but he was never punished. As a result of this my mother decided to leave Germany, although she was in so-called protective police custody. She was claustrophobic anyway, it was terrible for her.

From Huyton we were taken to the Isle of Man. From there we were taken by train one day in July 1940, no warning of course, to Greenock, near Glasgow, onto a ship called Sobieski. From there we were taken across the Atlantic up the Saint Lawrence River to Montreal. On the ship there was a man I'd known in Cambridge, a patient of my mother’s, a very intelligent chap, a political refugee from Germany, not Jewish. He'd served on the left wing side in the Spanish Civil War & been interned in France & then come to England. Now he was interned again. He was very knowledgeable chap. Also a very much do-it-yourself chap. He found a piece of sailcloth & made me a pair of shorts on the ship which I treasured for many years. They were a bit stiff, rather like denim. But very useful during my internment in the summer. On the ship there were also German POWs. We were separated thank God.

From Montreal we were taken to a place by train to a place called Trois-Rivières, three rivers. We were accommodated in a football stadium for a day or two, & we went again by train to a huge camp which was being built amongst pine woods & birch woods of Canada, quite near the American border I believe. The camp it wasn’t quite ready yet. There was one water tap for about 600 people. If you wanted a wash you had to start queuing up at about 2 in the morning but that was soon remedied. They didn’t have the roofs on either, but it was summer & that didn’t matter. I quite enjoyed the camp. We were sent out in groups to cut down trees for firewood. The huts, later in the winter, were heated by wood burning stoves & ultimately there wasn’t enough food there. We did have the Kaiser’s grandson who was a student at Oxford, he was one of the internees. I nearly chopped my leg off once.

Then a commissioner called Hamilton was sent by the Home Office, who'd realised it had been really rather stupid in interning all these refugees, some of whom had actually been in a German concentration camp. He interviewed us all individually & offered some of us release.

So in mid January 1941 we were taken again by ship to Liverpool. I ended up at the Adelphi to make a phone call to my mother to say I was back. My voice had broken in Canada, I had no money, so I had to ask if my mother would accept a reverse charge call from Liverpool. My mother thought it was probably some poor refugee who hadn’t got any money. Of course she was quite right, but she wouldn’t believe at first it was me because my voice had broken. I told her that the next day I would be arriving in Cambridge & she did something which for her was quite unusual, she cancelled a patient so she could meet me at the station. Only one patient mind you! She met me at the station & we were both delighted."

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