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Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
6 January 1939
Rolf Penzias was born in October 1922 in Munich. His mother was not Jewish but converted after marriage. She came from Pforzheim and was a trained enamel worker. His father worked as textile wholesaler and travelled a lot. Rolf attended the orthodox Jewish school near the synagogue in Herzog-Rudolf-Straße. Two of his teachers were the uncles of the future US Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger. Rolf remembers life changed for his family with Hitler’s rise to power. He, his brother Walter (two years younger) and their friends walked to school in groups together to school to defend themselves from antisemitic attacks. Rolf remembers Nazi rallies with Hitler and the SA keeping the crowd back. After finishing school, he began an apprenticeship with the Wilde Brothers in the Museumgarage as a mechanic. He remembers that in summer 1938 they helped clear out the Main Synagogue (Hauptsynagoge), as Hitler and the Nazis didn’t want a synagogue in Munich’s centre and ordered it to be torn down under the pretext of “traffic reasons”. He also remembers hiding in the basement of the Polish Consulate with his father and uncles during Kristallnacht, as they had Polish passports (his grandfather came from Lviv).
One of his aunts who was the PA to the Head of the German Jewish organisation in Munich put Rolf and his brother Walter on the list for the Kindertransport. When they came to the station, he remembers that the train from Vienna was already filled with crying children. He was assigned to look after a young boy. He also remembers after crossing into the Netherlands that Dutch women gave the children cocoa and sweets. They boarded the ship at the Hook of Holland and arrived in Harwich from where they were taken to Dovercourt. He and his brother were taken in by a vicar. Later they were sent to a boarding school in Liverpool with boys from the Cologne Jawne school.
Rolf got very sick with osteomyelitis, an infection in the long bones in the legs. After the surgery, he spent nine lonely months in the hospital but thanks to his positive nature, he mainly remembers how well he was taken care of. When he was recovered, he started working as a machine operator in a factory outside Blackpool. He was able to move from there to live with his uncle (his father’s youngest brother) in London. Rolf worked for a Jewish corset company called Howard Wall. He started studying on Sundays for his matric and later enrolled at Goldsmith’s College to study mechanical engineering. His brother did the same at Manchester University.
Meanwhile, his parents fled Munich after a tip off that Rolf’s father was on the list to be taken to Dachau. Later they were interned a camp called Ferramonti in Calabria.
After the war, in 1948, Rolf helped his parents to come to England, the first time they had seen each other for ten years. Initially, Ralph’s parents found work as domestics. His father later started a wholesale business for socks and stockings. The parents travelled to Germany to find out about both parents’ family members but did not want to return for good.
Many years later, Rolf was happy to get a call from Bertha Leverton, who wanted to organise a meeting for the 50th anniversary of the Kindertransport. He felt a bond with his fellow Kinder, “it’s like we are a family”. He visits schools in the UK and Germany with his wife Lucy to talk to young people about their past. They hope students will learn from history, so that it will never happen again.
Key words: Munich. Kindertransport. Hitler party rally. Main Synagogue Munich. November Pogrom. Kristallnacht. Dovercourt. Liverpool.
I remember Hitler driving up & down the Maximilianstrasse with his Mercedes, before 1933. When he got into power he had his escort of Stormtroopers. Imagine an open bus with seats either side, with safety belts, but they could jump off. 8 people each side. They would go into a crowd & disperse them. Oh yes, that was already 1934. The SR or the SS strapped in there, going to action in the cars. Oh, yeah. There was no way you could demonstrate anymore against Hitler.
In 1935 there was a festival: Haus der Deutsche Kunst. They started up a new sort of museum with pictures & statues inside. For the inauguration: a big procession coming along the road, showing them off to people. People lined the streets. My parents & I were there. We were at the back. SR & SS kept the crowd back. One of the SS went and said to my father, “Why didn’t you let your children—we let the children sit in the front? Let them sit in the front.” My father didn’t want to say anything, so we sat in the front with other kids with our Nazi flag in our hand, watching the thing go by.
At the very end of the procession was Hitler, cheering to the crowd. As he got towards us, the crowd burst through & pushed us all down on top of him. There was Hitler in front of me, shaking hands with all the kids who sort of were pushing in front of him. Well, we didn’t shake hands with him, naturally. We tried to get back but we were pushed right on top of him. Yeah, that's how close I was to that fella. I saw him many times up & down the Maximilianstrasse. I saw him again when the Germans went into Sudetenland. The tanks came through Munich. I remember somebody saying—was it in England or Germany? “Those German tanks are all just wooden models”. They weren't bloody models, I can tell you. They were the real thing already then.