The Kindertransport 80 years on: ‘I didn’t see my parents for 10 years’
- Credit: Archant
Eighty years after escaping the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, two north London women who saw Hitler’s ascent have recalled the creeping rise of fascism – and warned of the risks of history repeating itself.
Elsa Shamash, 91, lives in Highgate. Eleven when she came to England on the trains that rescued refugee children from the Nazis, she remembers both the horrors inflicted on Germany’s Jewish population in the run-up to war, and the strangeness of being a young German Jew in in the UK, which was at war with the only home she had ever known.
Her awareness of rising antisemitism began young.
“When I was six in 1933 one of my little friends said: ‘My mother says I mustn’t play with you because you are Jewish,’” she said. “Their parents came to my parents and said: ‘We can’t associate with you.’
“When my brother was supposed to go to secondary school, they told my mother: ‘We will take your boy, but I cannot protect him.’”
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West Hampstead’s Ruth Barnett, 83, fled Germany with her elder brother at the age of just four in February 1939.
Looking back inspires her to encourage younger generations to challenge society’s prblems.
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“I tell my story in terms of looking at what we haven’t learned,” she said. “It seems we are sleepwalking into destruction.
“We are lucky to be alive – I think all of us, not just who came across on the Kindertransport, but the two or three generations after, too.”
For both Ruth and Elsa, November 9, 1938 – Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass – saw terrors realised.
Elsa said: “We went to school the next day and some teachers had disappeared. They had been taken to concentration camps.
“Then I can remember sitting at lunch at home. The phone rings. ‘It’s here, the Gestapo. Can you tell the doctor?’
“My father – the doctor – packed a tiny bag. Then he rode the underground for the rest of the day. For three days we had no idea where he was.”
Ruth added: “By November 1938 the population had been brainwashed against Jews. By that time it was almost too late to get out.”
For both women, taking a train to escape left them unsure when they would see their parents again, if ever. Ruth didn’t see hers for 10 years.
She said: “My father left it to the last minute to get out. Europe was closed to him, but Shanghai was then a British mandate, so that’s where he went.” Ruth is hoping to put on in London a play she has written about her father’s remakable life.
“My mother left Berlin and was down right in the south near Lake Constance. I know she was badly treated. She was the worst affected.”
For Elsa, reunion was swifter, but when she and her brother arrived in England they were sent to a boarding school in Broadstairs that Elsa found unpleasant.
“There was not a single qualified teacher at the girls’ school,” she said, “and to the other children, we were the German kids. In Germany we were not German, but here that’s exactly what we were.”
Her parents were able to escape in April 1939, and eventually settled in Cambridge.
She said: “On March 15 we went on a trip down to the sea. At the beach I can vividly remember seeing a hoarding: ‘Hitler raises the flag’. It was the annexation of Czechoslovakia.
“I thought this meant war, and that my parents would be stuck.”
But Elsa’s parents made it out, although they initially struggled to find work. Elsa then came to London as a teacher, and went on to work at schools including Muswell Hill’s Fortismere,
For Ruth, being younger at the war’s end, life was more complicated. She was forced by her parents to return to Germany, and only able to come back to England after a year. without have a passport, or a nationality at all.
“I had to travel without a nationality. I had a little piece of paper, ‘person of no nationality’,” she said. “It completely shot my self-confidence.”
Like Ruth, Elsa is also acutely aware of the lessons the past can tell the present. She said: “The situation feels the same for others as it was then. It’s important to help refugees. I will always campaign for safe passage.”
Elsa and Ruth feature in the Kindertransport exhibition which continues at the Jewish Museum in Camden until February 10.