Exhibition: Remembering The Kindertransport 80 Years On at the Jewish Museum Camden Town
PUBLISHED: 13:02 13 November 2018
Display follows the stories of six children who fled Nazi Germany alone on life-saving train journeys
The pogrom of November 9, 1938, when Jewish shops, homes and synagogues across Nazi Germany were attacked and burned has become known as Kristallnacht.
It was also the catalyst for an extraordinary rescue mission that saw nearly 10,000 Jewish children brought to safety in Britain on the ‘Kindertransport’.
“The first train arrived on December 2 so the organisations and volunteers involved reacted very quickly, it was a fast response and an amazing effort to galvanise the British Home Office,” says Kathryn Pieren, curator of Remembering The Kindertransport, a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town.However the collection of photographs, objects and films doesn’t focus on the rescuers; like Hampstead stockbroker Nicholas Winton who helped evacuate children from Czechoslovakia.
Rather it highlights six surviving Kinder, now in their 80s and 90s, who tell the story of how they came and the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country.
Pieren adds: “The exhibition really concentrates on telling the not so well known story from the perspective of the Kinder. In the 80th year we thought it was important to capture the personal memories of six who are all quite elderly. Our challenge was how to use their knowledge and these fantastic human stories in the future”
Bea Green left Munich at midnight on June 27, 1939, aged 14. As the train slowly pulled out of the station, she saw her mother step behind her father to hide her tears, and describes a journey that was a mixture of fear - as SS troops carrying guns boarded the train at the German border - and comfort, when Dutch women came aboard bringing bread, butter and orange juice.
Putting her arm around a younger girl who was crying, she assured her she would see her mother again soon. She was, she says, really talking to herself.
Bea was later reunited with her parents, but around two thirds of the Kinder were not so lucky.
When Ann Kirk left Berlin in April 1939, her parents took her to the station where many families were in tears. Her father joked about it being a great adventure, and must have jumped into a taxi to a station further up the line, because as the train passed through, Bea spotted her parents waving frantically. She was 10 years old and it was her last sight of them. Crossing from Hamburg to Southampton, she boarded a train to Waterloo with a label around her neck, carrying only a small suitcase.
She was looked after by Millie and Sophie Levy two sisters from Finchley and settled in well at South Hampstead High School where there were other Jewish refugees. In 1950 she married Bob Kirk a fellow Kinder whose testimony is in the exhibition. Like other Kinder she recalls the wartime messages to her parents via the Red Cross. Just 25 words once a month. In December 1942 a message from her father read: ‘Sorry bad news. Mummy emigrated 14th December. Am terrified myself but confident of family reunion after the war’.
In January there was one further message, but then silence.
Elsa Shamash and her brother left on March 2, 1939, saying tearful goodbyes at Berlin’s Stettiner Bahnhof and arriving with just one shilling and a suitcase on a night boat via the Hook of Holland.
Former schoolteacher and psychotherapist, Ruth Barnett was born Ruth Michaelis in 1935 in Berlin and arrived in Britain in 1939, aged four with her seven-year-old brother. Over the next ten years they lived with three foster families and in a hostel.
Her Jewish father escaped to Shanghai, her mother, who was not Jewish, stayed in Germany in hiding. But when Ruth was sent back to Germany against her will in 1949, she couldn’t cope with second loss of home and the return to a country she found terrifying. She returned to Britain and visited her parents for school holidays.
Pieren says each filmed testimony recounts the kinder’s final years in Germany, the journey and how they settled in.
“They all speak regularly to school children and have tried to answer the most popular questions that the children ask. It’s not the same as meeting a real person but we want to make sure that in future children will feel as much as possible they are speaking directly to you.”
Quotes, old photos and personal belongings accompany the films.
“There are poignant items; one brought an accordion, another her father’s medals from the First World War. One boy brought a brush because his mother wanted to make sure he was groomed, and for another a German English dictionary was the first thing they were given by their host family.”
The Kinder also tell of hardship and displacement.
“Not all the placements were good, some Kinder had to go to several places or were evacuated out of London and exploited as cheap labour on farms. One woman says they didn’t want her in Germany because she was Jewish and they didn’t want her here because she was German. One says when she goes back to Germany she doesn’t feel German. Every time I hear a new story, they are still moving. Even though people have talked many times about their experience, they are still moved every time they tell it. For the children who hear them it’s something that is impressed upon them for the rest of their lives.”
Remembering the Kindertransport 80 Years On runs at the Jewish Museum Camden Town until February 10 and includes survivor talks by Ruth Barnett and Bernd Koschland and a rehearsed reading of Diane Samuels’ play Kindertransport.