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Peter Summerfield

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
Born:
August 27, 1939
Interview number:
Experiences:
RV
262

Interview Summary:

Peter Summerfield, was born Klaus Peter Willi Sommerfeld, in June 1933. He was born 25 minutes after his twin brother, George Summerfield (Heinz Guenther Arthur Sommerfeld). His father Franz was a civil servant and had lost his job shortly after Hitler came to power. His mother Margot was a haute couture dressmaker. They lived in a ground floor flat in the Heylstraße 29 and Peter remembers going to the parks and playing with the caretaker’s children. Peter and George were sent to a Jewish kindergarten, which their mother took them to by tram. On the 10th of November 1938, on the way to the kindergarten, from the window of the tram, they saw the synagogue in Fasanenstraße burn. Peter recalls being shocked as they had recently celebrated the festival of Sukkot in the synagogue. He recalls that they were not allowed to sit on certain benches in the park and that going out became more dangerous. He also recounts the day the caretaker’s children explained that they were not allowed to play with Peter and his brother anymore because they were Jewish. On the day of the November Pogrom (Kristallnacht), the caretaker hid Peter’s father in the cellar of the building, so that he could not be arrested.


His parents had tried to find ways to emigrate since 1935 and in 1938 the family managed to get registered for a visa to the USA. They were sponsored by a distant relative. They prepared to send some of their belongings on a crate to the USA and a Gestapo man came to their flat to supervise the packing. Their visa came through in August 1939 and the family bought boat tickets to travel to the USA via the UK. They were supposed to travel on the 30th of August but on Saturday the 26th, Peter’s grandmother came to their flat very early in the morning and urged them to leave sooner, as she had listened illegally to BBC radio and it was clear to her that war was imminent.


Peter’s parents wanted to take her advice and leave earlier but could not afford the train tickets to the UK. When they asked the caretaker, Mr Schädler, if he could loan them money, he willingly did and they boarded the train that Saturday evening. They tried to convince a niece of his mother to come with them but she had to pick up two dresses from a dressmaker the next day and said that she preferred to take the train the following day.


Peter and his family boarded the train to Holland but before the border they were asked to leave their luggage on the train and disembark. Peter clutched his teddy bear and got out of the train. The train returned to Germany and they stayed at the station until a Dutch train took them to Holland. They arrived in the UK on the 27thof August 1939. Their boat never left Hamburg, as it was deemed too dangerous to travel at that point. Peter tells us that he gets upset when he tells the story of his cousin, who never made it to the UK because of the two dresses she needed to pick up.


When they arrived at Liverpool Street station, the Central British Fund picked the family up and put them in a hotel for two weeks. Shortly after, they moved to a room in Chiswick, where Peter and George were given spaces at Chiswick and Bedford Park High school. They then moved to Eastbourne, as it was cheaper. From there, Peter’s father was arrested and taken to internment on the Isle of Man. Peter, George and his mother moved to London, as ‘enemy aliens’ were not allowed to stay on the coast. They moved into a room in Chalk Farm and spent every night in Tottenham Court Road Underground Station because of the Blitz. Peter’s mother went to Woburn House regularly to organise their emigration to the USA. They boys first went to a local primary school where they were bullied as ‘Germans’ but then the Hall School in Swiss Cottage offered them two places for one school fee. The family joined Belsize Square Synagogue and Peter and George were they only two children of that age in the community. They also started performing, singing and tap dancing. They performed for the synagogue, for the Blue Danube, and American troops. Peter and George went to William Ellis Grammar School and received scholarships to study in Oxford. They completed their National Service and were sent on active duty to Egypt and Malta. Peter studied Law at Pembroke College in Oxford and became a solicitor, working with the Swiss, Austrian, and American embassies in the UK.


Peter married his first wife Susie Walton in1963 and they had three children. He married Marianne Graboswski, a refugee from Breslau, in 1973 and together they started talking to pupils in German schools about their experiences. They also became active Holocaust educators in the UK and were awarded the British Empire Medal in 2019 for their services.


In 2021 Peter participated in a BBC film series called ‘Saved by a Stranger’ and was put in touch with the son of Rolf Schädler, the caretaker who saved their lives. Peter’s parents had been in touch with Rolf after the war and they repaid the money they owned him and send some care packages but then lost touch with the family. Peter was very pleased to be able to meet Rolf’s son. Due to Covid-19 this meeting took place on Zoom but Peter hopes that they will be able to meet in person.


Additional Comments:

Peter was filmed at the end of the interview with his teddy, whom he brought from Berlin.


Key words:

Berlin. Transit Visa to UK. Visa for USA. Late escape from Berlin. Eastbourne. Twin Performers. Belsize Square Synagogue. Swiss Cottage. The Hall School. William Ellis Grammar School. Military Service in Egypt. Oxford University.

Keyword

Full Interview

Transcript

Never a day goes by without my thinking of my past, and thinking of my family, and what happened as a result of the Nazis. It’s really not something which I forget about. But I do think about it. It’s very much part of my life. I even dream about it. And therefore, it’s played a great role in my life the fact that I came from Germany originally, but I’m very proud to be British, very lucky to be alive as I’ve said.
It was called By Candlelight and my [twin] brother and I were dressed up as porters, and we used to do – we used to sing in English and in German. There were obviously many other entertainers, and we used to have little things to say to each other, you know, silly things like, ‘Would you like a cigarette?’ The other one – we were only eight years old – would say, ‘No, I only smoke cigars.’ You know, people laughed at that…
when we were only about eight or nine years of age of course the War was still going on. So they asked whether we would entertain the Forces, mainly the American Forces. So, the American Forces gave us naval uniforms, and we used to entertain them. And this was great. We used to say, ‘Hey there mister, you’d better hide your sister ‘cos the fleet’s in, the fleet’s in. Hey there mister, don’t say nobody’s kissed her, ‘cos the fleet’s in.’

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