Hannelore Napier

Throughout the interview, Hannelore Napier sat with the small brown suitcase that had accompanied her to Britain from Berlin on 20‒21 June 1939. She did not recall its original contents, but it remains a cherished possession. Aged five, she witnessed ‘Hitler’s cavalcade and did a “Heil Hitler”’, and remembers Kristallnacht in November 1938. A special photograph taken of the interviewee with her mother marked Hannelore’s impending departure,  and their farewells were perforce outside the station.


Although born in Schonlanke  on 16 April 1930, from 1935‒1939 Napier went to a Jewish boarding school in Berlin with some fifty pupils, taking Hebrew lessons which she ‘did not understand.’ Her assimilated parents, Siegfried Spagat (born 12 December 1893) and Kathe (born Lewin in Schonlanke, 18 January 1905) duly divorced. Siegfried was sent to Auschwitz in 1943, but Kathe reached Britain a week before WWII commenced, thus survived. A letter from Hannelore’s foster parents in Cardiff precipitated the journey; two‒three weeks after receiving their ward they wanted to adopt Hannelore and convert her to Christianity, but would allow Kathe to visit her. Having lost her son Arbert who fatally fell from a window, to also lose her daughter was too much to bear. Kathe declined.


Her daughter had been met at Liverpool Street Station by the Christian Mr and Mrs Bolton, then spent a month in Cardiff where she was ‘bullied as a German’, before moving to a ‘half-way house’ in Tunbridge Wells, where she was well treated. However, it was with Methodists Nellie and Alfred Garbutt, a carpet designer in West Riding, Yorkshire, that Hannelore found a new home and loving foster parents, even adopting their family name. Although they did not try to convert her, at sixteen Hannelore voluntarily became a member of the Methodist Church. She had Christian friends and the nearest synagogue was in Leeds, too far away to attend, but she remained proud of her German-Jewish background.


She did well at Heckmondwike Grammar School, Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire and Kidderminster High School for Girls, but chose not to study German, and left school at seventeen. She had wanted to be a teacher, but in 1945 moved to Kidderminster to work in an office, and became a book-keeper. In the meantime, her mother proved to be ‘a good worker.’ Initially barred from employment except as a resident domestic or nurse, Kathe had moved to London, cooking by day plus working at night. Contrary to expectation, Hannelore did not go and live with her blood mother – the bond had been broken. In 1956 the interviewee married an Anglican Christian engineer from Malpeth; her mother was unhappy about the marriage and within herself.


To ‘give something back to England’, Hannelore Napier was actively involved as a Girl Guider, a prison probation volunteer, in the church, and in organizing ‘shoebox gifts’ for the needy in Britain/abroad, then in 2006 unexpectedly began her Holocaust survivor talks to school children and groups of all ages, which she believes is a very important and worthwhile activity. An 80th birthday family gift was a three-week trip ‘to find her roots’ in Germany and visit Auschwitz, where her father and most other family members had perished, though her observant uncle Artur came to Britain in 1948.


A further commemorative journey took place on 1 July 2016, retracing the route from London’s Liverpool Street Station to Harwich, where a Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance was held at St. Nicholas Church, followed by the screening of Kindertransport material in the Electric Palace Cinema and other events.  Twenty-five people including two from Berlin took part. Napier was again accompanied by her daughter Rachel, but on this occasion by her grand-daughter Sarah too, both of whom are interested in their family heritage. Indeed Rachel, a Religious Education teacher, wears a cross mounted on a Star of David, reflecting both acceptance and a sense of continuity as the second generation.


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@ Refugee Voices 2019