Documenting Jewish Adelaide
My experiences with the “Kindertransport” (Children’s Transport) in 1939
I will be telling you about the life of a Jewish boy growing up under the Nazi Regime. About the hard decisions of families during those fateful years. I will tell you about the difficulties of trying to escape from the clutches of Nazism, the intolerance and ignorance of those who could have helped. Of trying to settle in an alien world. Of re-entering Germany, not as the victim but the victor.
My name is Guenther Joachim Baumgart. I was born in 1923 in Breslau. A town of about 500.000 in Schlesien, East Germany now known as Wraclow, Poland. My father Erich Baumgart was born in1886 in Kattowitz when German, Katowizse when Polish. His family lived on what was then the Polish border in the province of Ober Schlesien in a small town known sometimes as Hindenburg or Zaboje, depending who was in charge at the time. My mother, Lydia Lotte nee Finkenstein was born in Breslau in the year 1900.
My parents were good Jews but not very religious. While my grandparents where Orthodox my parents always belonged to the Reform Synagogue. I can’t go back all that far in my origins, as my parents told me little about it and I had to piece it together after I grew up, when I couldn’t ask anyone any more.
My paternal grandparents were desperately trying to emancipate as Germans, and changed anything remotely connected to their Polish heritage. They called their children Erich, Hans and Rosa. The irony of this is another story.
Her childhood until World War I was in the prosperous and permissive society in Germany. She was 14 years old when the First World War broke out, and only two years after war ended, got married. It always astounds me, when I think just how little normal life her generation has experienced. A mere 14 years after the First World War Hitler rose to power, and there was a mere 20 years of peace between the great wars.
My grandfather was a ‘Pelzmacher’ or furrier, who had a little workshop at home. He was born in 1864 at Lautenberg in the province of Strassburg. All of grandfather Finkenstein’s family had emigrated to the U.S.A. in the early years of the 20th Century, when America was known as the ‘Goldene Medine’ (The Golden Land). When Russian pogroms and Polish anti-Semitism were at their worst, many Jews fled to America. My grandfather, although only a young man at the time, decided to go back to Germany on his own. He was only a very poor furrier all his life. The Nazis dragged him off to a concentration camp, where he was killed.
How did I know I was Jewish? Before 1933 until I was 9 years old it was just a way of life, like eating and sleeping, a matter of routine. I was fortunate to go to a Jewish school close to where we lived.
Religious teaching in those days was rather boring. Hebrew was not a living language until after the Zionist movement was formed and emigration to Israel started. So all we read was the ‘Old Testament’ and prayer books. We were allowed our own form of religion and orthodoxy was not forced on us. We had a beautiful large Reform synagogue, but we only visited it on special occasions, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach and weddings and Bar Mitzvah’s. On those occasions everyone dressed up to the hilt. My father wore a top hat and frock coat. Frankly, I spent most of the time of the very long services in the synagogue yard, playing with other children. I can describe the yard very well, but the interior is a bit hazy. Reform Judaism was still quite new. It was formed in Germany and took hold in other countries only when German Jews began to emigrate to the West. It took some 65 years until I realised the advantage of learning Hebrew, because I never looked at a Hebrew text for 48 years, from the time I left school in 1939, until 1987 when I re-joined the Jewish community.
For a young child the world outside of school and home would not have been of great interest. Yet outside, in the years from 1923 to 1929, there was great chaos. Germany and the rest of the world took a long time to recover from the ravages of World War I.
Then around 1929 the bubble burst, and with it came inflation. I do remember the crazy sums of money which were worthless. At that time, a loaf of bread may cost 100.000 Mark, and by the time you got to the shop to buy it, it had gone up to 1 Million Marks. Every box and basket and even prams and carts were utilised to carry the money. Eventually the government printed Bank notes for 500 Million or more. These stacks of notes made great play money, and we had games pretending to be rich and grown up. Eventually the Finance Minister changed the 100 Million note to the value of 1.00 Mark and things got back to some normality.
Politically there was great upheaval and although I would not have realised the reasons at my age, I did observe and remember the consequences. There were at the time 36 political parties and a weak government. Different placards, banners and flags were everywhere. Propaganda was just as dirty as it is now, with plenty of political smear campaigns. There were also a lot of street fights between various groups, which we children ran away from. Most of these were between the Communists and a new phenomenon, the Nazi Party, or its unlikely full description: National Socialist German Workers Party.
In our home, politics was a main subject, and whenever relatives got together long discussions erupted. They were anxious times, with lots of bad alternatives and very few good ones. I imagine that my father’s view would have been contrary to most of his relations. He was a staunch Royalist and Nationalist. He belonged to a Nationalist party called ‘Der Stahlhelm’ (The Steel Helmet), made up of ex-servicemen from World War I. My father had been an officer in the German Army during that war and was decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery.
We children could not escape this show of ‘Nationalism’. Pride of place in the entrance hall of our apartment was a display of a regimental red pennant with all the medals won, and flanked by the pictures of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Field Marshal Hindenburg. This display was still there in 1938 when the Gestapo came for Vati. A lot of these days became larger than life in later years, when we realised the connotations.
I am nine years old. The year is 1933. Everyone became so serious and the light- heartedness and optimism had gone. The grown ups were always in serious discussions, and arguments had increased. Children never were involved in discussions, and more often than not, we were sent out of the room. Something had changed in our household. Of course, now we know only too well what happened, and have dissected the reasons for the coming into power of Hitler in 1933 in every available form. Clashes between Communists and Nazis had escalated and were a daily occurrence. On the one hand the Communists promised to make everyone equal, dispossess the rich, follow the ideologies of foreigners like Marx, Engel, Lenin and Trotsky, many of them Jews, and on the other hand the Nazis, who promised work to the unemployed, national pride and vindication for the loss of the war, getting rid of the so called Jewish influence. They trumpeted their policy with pomp and ceremony, which the Germans like so much. Fear was the leading cause of the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and led to the election of Adolf Hitler to power.
Many Germans, including Jews, discounted Nazi racism as part of the overblown rhetoric of reawakening nationalism. Even after the April boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, and many well-reported acts of unprovoked violence, a mood of hope prevailed in many Jewish circles.
There were edicts against Jews every month. First they couldn’t have government jobs, and then they were sacked from the professions. Lawyers, doctors, accountants. But it was selective, and exceptions were made for friends and for bribes. Eventually, doctors and teachers were only allowed to perform their tasks to fellow Jews. One of the greatest sins against the Reich became associations with Aryans of the opposite sex. In the case of marriages, the State tried to force couples apart with threats and imprisonments. A weekly newspaper “Der St’quot; published by the Jew hater Julius Streicher, was devoted to publicise these associations. The paper showed caricatures of Jews depicted as devils and worse.
The reason I remember this so well is the fact that you could not escape it. Every time I passed a news stall I saw these horribly distorted faces staring at me, and realising this was supposed to be a picture of me or my family made my skin creep, and made me scared. The other manifestations of Nazism were less felt by me, at my age. Only when it started to affect our personal life, we became fully aware of it. Then there were the eternal marches and flags. There was not a rally or a speech by Hitler or one of his cronies that did not refer to the destruction of the Jewish race. The new German National Anthem had a passage claiming: “When Jewish blood spurts from our knives”. There was not much chance of avoiding the propaganda as loudspeakers were placed on every street corner to broadcast the speeches and music. I was in a dilemma when a group of Storm troopers or Hitler Youth marched past, and I did not know how to react. Do I hide in a doorway and hope nobody notices, or do I just stand there and raise my hand in Hitler salute, and melt into the crowd? Another trick was to look younger than one’s age. Especially later on, when I was about 14 years old and had started to wear long trousers, ‘knickerbockers’, three quarter length ‘plus four’s’. I went back to wearing short trousers when out in the street. Fourteen was old enough to be whizzed away by zealous Nazis.
When in February 1933 the German Parliament, the ‘Reichstag’, burned down, and was conveniently blamed on a lunatic Communist, while actually lit by the Nazi’s themselves, any pretence of preserving a democracy in Germany was abandoned.
The new laws against the Jews had not yet started to bite, as there was some hesitancy to show the outside world the real intentions of the Nazi agenda. Nor could they yet count on the support of the majority of Germans, despite manipulated plebiscites that showed 99.9% of German’s saying ‘Yes’ to the new regime.
It was my parents who would have felt the full impact of the times. The business ‘Baumgart & Co.’ at Carlsplatz No.2, in the centre of Breslau employed about 30 people. The company was involved in the wholesale and export of household goods, toys, haberdashery etc. Until about 1936 it was allowed to operate with few restrictions, but gradually became smaller and smaller until it was reduced to a one room office in our apartment. There was no compensation. The dispossession was gradual, until it was impossible to operate successfully, and had to be sold for a fraction of its real value. New laws were invented making it legal to confiscate assets.
At that time it was still possible to leave Germany and find refuge elsewhere. Very few did. The government had invented an ‘escape tax’ (Reichsfluchtsteuer) which meant that you had to pay them 25% of your assets before being allowed to leave Germany. That prevented the richer Jews from leaving, when they not yet felt an urgency to do so. The prospects of the ordinary Jewish citizens were far less promising. Europe and America were still struggling to climb out of the depression. If they were unable to fend for themselves they would be a strain on already stretched resources. If they lived up to their reputation for enterprise and hard work, they would take jobs from others. It was getting more and more difficult to find something to do which was not ‘verboten’ for Jews. When I went to the park, I couldn’t sit down, as benches were marked “No Jews”. I couldn’t go to most shops and of course definitely no visits to cinemas and other places of entertainment.
1936 was the year of my Bar Mitzvah. Also I was a ‘man’ now! I didn’t feel any different and nothing had changed except for the outside world.
More and more people vanished, and the word ‘Concentration Camp’ was heard more and more. It was impossible to have a job or profession, Jews were turfed out of their homes, valuables were confiscated, food was rationed, and you could not go anywhere or be seen. The physical abuses became every day occurrences. It was time to leave Germany. But where to? There were only 400.000 Jews in Germany, but the other countries, including the USA, Canada, England and Australia, got worried about large quantities of immigrants flooding their shores. The USA was still open to family members of US citizens, provided they could guarantee their support and deposit large sums of money. The British government of the day was filled with blatantly anti-Semitic ministers. Very few governments were willing to help. They all looked over their shoulder for someone else to help. After the ‘Anschluss’, the take over of Austria, it was at last realised that something had to be done to allow immigration of German Jews. In June 1938 President Roosevelt proposed a meeting of government representatives of America and Europe, except Germany. Recognising the tribulations of German and Austrian Jews, the conference would manifest before the non-European world the urgency of emigrations, chiefly to Palestine. The British did not like the sound of that. Roosevelt was asked to narrow the scope of the conference to avoid the subject of Palestine, and at the same time to widen it by considering the problems of all refugees, not just German Jews.
The representatives of 31 countries assembled in the Hotel Royal at Evian on the 6th July 1938. To everyone’s surprise, Jewish delegates from Berlin and Vienna were allowed to attend. So were the representatives of at least 100 distressed minorities. One representative dubbed the conference the ‘Modern Wailing Wall’. Another pointed out that ‘Evian’ was spelled ‘Naive’ backwards. Nothing was resolved. Vague resolutions were passed. One resolution suggested to appeal to the German government to set fair conditions for evacuation, another to appoint a committee to work out plans for resettlement. Various places were suggested, one being Madagascar. I include this report to show that, while Germany was finding its ‘Solution of the Jewish Question’, the rest of the world found its own ‘Solution’.
The turning point, and the final excuse for the Nazis to commence a program of total terrorism against Jews came on the night of the 9th November 1938. Known as ‘Kristallnacht’ (Crystal Night) and so named for the broken glass of Jewish shops, businesses and homes.
The apparent reason for the excesses to follow was the assassination of a minor German official Ernst von Rath, at the German embassy in Paris. The assassin was a 17year old Polish Jew called Herschel Grynszpan, who was hiding as an illegal immigrant in Paris. There is a theory that the Nazis fabricated the whole affair. Von Rath was not a Nazi and they wanted to get rid of him. Consequently they primed Grynszpan for the job. Whatever the reasons may have been, the effect it had on the Jews was devastating. The Nazi leadership snapped up the opportunity to provoke another outbreak of anti-Semitism. A vicious tirade by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was the signal for party activists and Storm troopers throughout Germany to indulge in an orgy of destruction.
In what was supposed to be a spontaneous outburst of anger by the German people, the Nazis organised wholesale destruction of all Jewish shops and businesses, smashing windows, looting stock, destroying and burning premises. Jewish homes were invaded by gangs, the tenants thrown out, often beaten, furniture and household items where destroyed, sometimes thrown from windows. Particular delight was taken to destroy religious items sacred to the people.
In their frenzy the prime targets were Synagogues and Jewish schools. These were just set alight, and while the fire brigade looked on, burned to the ground, with all the priceless holy relics, such as the Torah scrolls. Years later we learned that some of the holy objects were actually looted by the Nazis with the intention to display them in a museum of artefacts from an extinguished race. We were able to see the flames from our burning Synagogue and my school during the night. From that day on my regular education came to an end at age 14.
Then one night late I could hear the dreaded footsteps. You could always make out the loud metal studded boots of the GESTAPO. The letters mean ‘Secret State Police’. It showed their confidence, that nothing could stop their evil intentions. Up the three flights of stairs they came. We held our breath, and then the knock, loud and insistent. “You, Baumgart” they said. Already Jews were not to be graced with the polite ‘Herr’ or respectful ‘Sie’. Two agents in their typical outfit, leather coat and slouch hat, barged into the flat. I could not hear the conversation, as I sat trembling in another room. All I know is that they did not take him away at the time. I would assume that my father tried to impress them with his war record, the framed pictures of Field Marshal Hindenburg and the Kaiser, and the mounted medals and Iron Cross. At the time, arrests were not organised but spasmodic.
Our family went into isolation. My parents tried desperately to escape. My sister Ruth had been able to find relatives in America to issue an affidavit. Where could we go? We spent a lot of time contacting refugee organizations, consulates etc. in Breslau and abroad, to find a way to escape this madness. I am sure that a top priority for my parents would have been to send me overseas. There were just too many who wanted to go, and too few places offered by countries. The ‘Kristallnacht’ became rather an embarrassment to the Nazis, who were trying to placate the other countries, prior to the Munich Conference and the takeover of Czechoslovakia. They were therefore willing to make concessions, to allow some emigration of Jews. Some influential Jews, such as Lord Rothschild and Lord Samuel, approached the British government to allow a quota of children to immigrate to Britain. The Nazis were as keen as ever to get rid of their Jewish citizens, but were sensitive to public awareness of how they went about it. A refugee ship could not easily disguise its function; a refugee ship crowded with children was liable to become a propaganda coup for the Jews. Far better they should go by rail.
The most tolerant country that led the way was Holland, and it was decided that the transports would leave via Hoek van Holland to Harwich. Nobody was prepared. Although no actual number was ever given, it was assumed that Britain would take about 10.000 children. Passports and visas would not be necessary, and a travel document used instead. Selection was therefore quite haphazard. Everybody pushed and shoved to be one of the lucky ones. Some had relatives who sent letters. Some placed adverts in the ‘Jewish Chronicle’, asking to foster their children. These are just two such adverts:
“Which family would like to take over Jewish boy, 11 years, from first-class Viennese family and give him the chance to learn a trade? (Father was in jewellery trade, now penniless). Very urgent. Pocket money and clothes will be provided. Contact……..” , or “Which family would give a home to two Viennese children, girls, aged 14 and 10 years, well educated, speak English and French? Photographs and references willingly sent, Write to…”.
Not enough sponsors could be found, and most wanted only very young children. It was more important to get the more endangered older children out first. Neville Chamberlain was prepared to allow an unspecified number of children up to the age of 17 to enter, provided ‘no public funds would be spent on these children’. Viscount Samuel gave that guarantee.
Finally there was an opening for my going to England. There was never any question of parents to be allowed to go with their children. What must have been the feelings of these parents? There was of course, no alternative. At that time there was no official policy for the extermination of the Jewish race, that came later, in 1941. Yet, what could the future hold? Vati and I had been discussing my future, but always with the thought that one-day conditions for us would be normal again, and the Nazis gone. Before I was allowed to go to England, Vati still wanted me to study for a profession. He favoured me to be a pharmacist or an optician. We even made some enquires about it. Did he really think there was a chance? In Germany? In England? I hope he believed in it to the end that both Ruth and I had a good future. It was with such hopes they sent us to an uncertain fate in strange lands.
My parents tried desperately to escape. There was an opening to go to the Bahamas, and maybe get to the US that way. There was a possibility of a single Visa to Shanghai in China. Shanghai had become a centre of commerce and realised, that an influx of Jews with business acumen would be a great asset, particularly if they could bring money. They were prepared to allow a large number to immigrate. But who was to go? My father wasn’t going to leave my mother behind, and she wasn’t to go on her own.
Finally the door to my rescue opened a small crack. The possibility of my being allowed to emigrate became more probable, and we made some preparation to that end. I was fitted out with some new clothing, trousers, shirts, shoes etc. Clothing caused much vexation for parents who often had eccentric images of the well-dressed English. Tweeds were much in demand for boys who were togged up to look like young versions of Sherlock Holmes. My knickerbockers (trousers at calf length, pulled together at the bottom like tracksuit pants), which were fashionable in Germany at the time, marked me as a complete foreigner as soon as I arrived in England. I knew I would only be allowed absolute necessities. The selection was very hard. A child of 15 has many mementos, although most of it had already gone during the forced move to our one room home. Apart from clothing, all I could take was my Hebrew bible, photos and English primer.
Selection of children was made quite haphazardly, and I don’t know whether my parents knew someone or had some other method of getting me included in the Children’s Transport to the U.K. Emigration laws in England were constantly changing. Ever more fanciful proposals were raised and discussed at enormous length, before being despatched to the wastepaper basket. Among these were talks of creating a Jewish State in Abyssinia; the Russians offered the Amur basin, as long as the new nation did not exceed 100.000, and several South American countries declared an interest in farmers who had a start capital of ?500. (Few refugees qualified either by occupation or savings.) Much praised at the Evian conference was the offer by the Dominican Republic to take 100.000 refugees, but the list was closed after 2000 names were received, and by November 1938 it was shortened to just twenty. 10.000 children under 17 were allowed into Great Britain, subject to several restrictions.
On March 28, 1939 I got notification that I would be joining a Children’s Transport to England. Two days later on March 30, 1939 I left Germany.
The departure from my parents and my home were overshadowed by the excitement of the occasion rather than the importance of the moment. Everyone was so busy lugging luggage, finding seats on the train, and meeting friends that the terrible loss of family and country did not strike home until much later. It was so crowded on the platform with hardly room to move. I can only imagine how my parents must have felt. Of course, we did not even consider the possibility of never seeing each other again. We were all going to meet in the United States ‘very soon’.
If they had known that this would be the last time they would see me, would they have let me go? Would I have wanted to go? How much more heart wrenching would the parting have been. I had managed to find a seat by the window of the train and together with the other boys pressed my face against the glass to get the last glimpse of our loved one’s. There was much shouting and waving, and worst of all, the rivers of tears that flowed this morning of our departure from Hauptbahnhof Breslau. Slowly, slowly the train puffed out of the station and the view of my parents became smaller and smaller until the last wave, and they were gone for the last time. My childhood had come to an end. I was just 15 years old and now I was alone.
On the day I crossed the German border I left behind me the beginning of Armageddon, the start of the greatest catastrophe mankind had ever known. It was almost six years to the day that I crossed the border back into Germany with the British Troops. By then it was almost over, and the evil had been defeated. History will record that during those six years 50 Million people in the world were to lose their lives, because of the mad dream of the most evil man. Mere chance and luck had spared me from the Holocaust and being one of the 6 Million Jews who were shot, clubbed, starved or gassed to death by the most elaborate system of calculated and organised extermination ever invented by a civilised country. This scenario unfolded with the participation of hundreds of thousands of willing executioners, millions of disinterested bystanders and thousands of misguided leaders of religion, politics and industry, who turned away from the victims. Yes, I am bitter and it shows. The reason? I will never be able to visit the graves of Mutti, Vati, grandparents Marcus and Frederike, uncles Hans, Alfred, Fritz, aunts Rosa and Elfriede, cousins Margot, Fritz and …………. so many more.
Worst of all 1.500.000 innocent children were murdered while I lived on. The world has not become a better place because of the suffering.
I NOW WOULD LIKE TO SHOW YOU A SHORT FILM I MADE ABOUT THE “KINDERTRANSPORT”. Some of the scenes are from the film “Into the Arms of Strangers”. You will also see a clip from a British documentary film. I happened to videotape this several years ago. When we watched it to my surprise I saw myself walking down the gangway of a ship in 1939 as a 15 year old. What a co-incidence! Fortunately being a tape we could watch it again, otherwise I would not have believed it possible. Finally I will show you some short scenes from a documentary “The Children who cheated the Nazis” and of the Reunion of the “Kinder” in 1999 in London. This will graphically show you what I can only describe in words.
I finally had escaped. Not until we crossed the German-Dutch Border did we dare to breath. We travelled via Berlin and Hanover to the Hoek van Holland. There were so many men in various uniforms at the border crossing. By now we had grown to about a 100 children, and only a few adults were allowed to escort us. Any uniform used to frighten me, but the brown and black ones I feared most. The control of the little bit of luggage we each carried was fierce. The Nazis didn’t mind losing some of their Jews, but to lose some of the loot they hoped to own one day was another matter. “Please God,” we all prayed, “don’t let anything happen to us now.” Being one of the oldest on the train, 17 was the limit, I had to present a stiff upper lip. What did the border guards make of the assortment of childish memorabilia and Hebrew books? There was no mistaking who and what we were. We all had acquired a new middle name on our documents. All the boys and men were now also called ‘Israel’ and all the girls and women ‘Sarah’. This and the large ‘J’ stamped all over the document made sure nobody took us to be Aryans. It was not until the beginning of 1945 that I set foot again on German soil.
We now crossed a friendly border, not like in some countries that sent their Jewish refugees straight back to Germany and their death. As soon as we passed the border the atmosphere changed, and I felt safe for the first time in the last six of my young years. Psychologically I must have taken many of my fears with me into later life. It was now up to me. There was not going to be anyone who would guide, direct or even love me. There are 10.000 such stories and every one is different. Some children were only three or four years old and just missed their mother and father. No one could explain to them what was happening. It was later suggested that about 20% of the children of the KINDERTRANSPORT had psychological problems in later life. By the time war broke out on the 3rd September 1939, 9350 refugee children had been brought out. Of these 7482 were Jewish. A fraction of the children who were left behind did not survive the war, and perished in extermination camps.
We were well schooled in being afraid; we have had six years of living in constant fear of the authorities. It would be a long time before we could trust anyone, especially men in uniforms of any kind. This included the train conductor.
The crossing was not a long one, just seven hours, but it was the first time I had seen a large expanse of water. Although we travelled through the night, there was nowhere to sleep. So we spend the night sitting on our suitcases and trying to keep warm. At last England! Not the white cliffs of Dover we had heard about, but the rather grimy port of Harwich. Since we had left home it was always waiting, waiting, waiting. Never knowing what the next step would be. Everything so strange, so big, so busy. I had arrived at a new world were the natives didn’t understand me. Eventually we boarded the train to London and looked at the never-ending houses along the train lines before arriving at the station. There was absolute chaos as relatives and guarantors were looking for ‘their’ children. It was like a cattle market. They were the lucky ones. No one was waiting for me at the station.
The offices of the German Refugee Committee at Woburn House, Bloomsbury was not exactly grand. The problem was the terrible feeling of not being wanted. There I sat for more than four hours, waiting again. Waiting for someone to tell me what comes next, waiting for someone to talk to me, waiting for someone to collect me. In the meantime the numbers of waiting children got less all the time. Some had relatives coming for them; some had sponsors collecting their charges. Why did my sponsors not call?
Our new home was a big rambling Victorian house in a fashionable suburb. Swiss Cottage, London. My home for only a month. To be a refugee, especially a German Jewish refugee was to be tolerated, to be in debt to everyone, to be reminded to be thankful for being there, to wait for the next move. The house was jokingly called Townley Castle School. We slept on mattresses on the basement floor. I supplemented the lack of food by spending six pence of my 1 Shilling and six pence pocket money by tins of fruit and the other shilling going to the pictures, my only source of learning English. Yes, I must be grateful that someone opened his house to about ten children, after all, not many homes were open to us. With many thousands of homes to be found, selection of foster parents and hostels was not always in the best interest of the child. Many stories were told later about children who were only supported and taken into homes to be slaves and perform menial tasks. Some very orthodox children who would have rather died than eat non-kosher food, or not be able to pray each day, were fostered to gentile couples, who, no doubt, meant well. Many, many sad stories are told in a book called, in the German version ‘Kindertransport’ and in English, ‘The policeman smiled…..’. Many made their way to become well-respected and even famous citizens of Britain. Some ended up in penal or psychological institutions. Some committed suicide. I was therefore lucky to be given a good start.
In May 1939 I finished up at a hostel for Jewish Refugee boys in Westgate-on-Sea, Kent. There were 60 boys living in what used to be a seaside boarding house. In spite of the circumstances we enjoyed our freedom and companionship. We even socialised with the outside world, including an invitation by the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral for our choir to sing in the Cathedral.
My parents were still writing desperate letters. They were pleading with us for help. They went on a roller coaster of promises never to be realised. At one stage they managed to board a ship in Hamburg to go to Cuba. The Captain wanted $US50 to take them. They did not have the money. My sister and I did not have any money at all and nobody would help us. Could it be that for the sake of $50 they could have been saved? My father died in Theresienstadt in 1943. My mother was murdered in Auschwitz just a few days before the Russians arrived.
My pleasant stay at the hostel came to an abrupt end. The shock came on the 25th August 1939 when the German army was preparing to invade Poland despite warnings from the Allies. Somewhere in the British government it was decided that a lot of young Germans running around near the coast of England might present a danger to the security of the country. So they found another hostel for us in the South London district of Croydon. I was on my way again, and so was the German Army, as on the 1st September 1939 they marched into Poland, and Winston Churchill made his famous speech declaring war on Germany.
We had to glean the news from radio broadcasts and cinema newsreels. Momentous events were taking place. Did I realise the implications? Was I afraid of the possible scenario? I suddenly realised that any chance of my parents to flee Germany had gone. What could have happened to them? Presumably they were in Hamburg with just a few suitcases of their belongings left. Where would they go from there? Home? They had no home. Did I think the Germans would invade Britain and I would be subjected to Nazi hatred and laws again?
Soon it was decided by the Refugee Committee that it was time for me to earn my own living. Having left school at 14 I knew nothing. My knowledge of English was atrocious. So they found me a job assembling chairs in a factory in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. My factory mates taught me the real King?s English and I earned 25 Shillings a week.
Unfortunately my freedom did not last very long. The war had affected England very little at that time. Life continued normally. Some things were beginning to get in short supply. I knew that any chance for my parents to leave Germany were gone, and I had no means of contacting them. This was the time of the ‘Phoney War’, ‘The Sitzkrieg’. The Allied Armies were entrenched behind the Maginot Line in France, while the Germans were waiting behind the ‘Siegfried Line’. In Germany the various Generals and Hitler were arguing about which way to attack, while in England preparations were made for air attacks. Provisions for over 250.000 hospital beds had been made, and within a few days of outbreak of war, 600 000 children were evacuated to the country.
Everyone carried a gasmask with them, cinemas and theatres were closed for a time, and at the London Zoo’s, poisonous snakes were killed in case they escaped in an air raid. There were some minor air raids with little damage. The fear of German air attack had gradually diminished, but had an effect on curbing the activities of the RAF. The Air Ministry had suggested to bomb the Black Forest with incendiaries to show the German people that war may come to their homes. This was thought to be against the Hague Convention for the conduct of war, and a minister in the British Government remarked: “Why, you will be asking me to bomb Essen next.” Not until the 10th May 1940, on the day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain, and when Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg the Sitzkrieg turned to the Blitzkrieg.
Enemies of the State
From the first day of the war, the security forces were in fear of the unseen enemy, agents and provocateurs, smuggled into the country under the guise of refugees. The government did not want to order a general internment. They set up investigative tribunals in various towns, who were to classify enemy aliens into three categories. A) German and Austrian nationals with specialised military knowledge which could hinder the war effort. They were interned immediately. B) Aliens who had lived some time in Britain and represented no danger and C) those who could produce evidence of good character and loyalty. The latter two categories were allowed to go free. But with the fall of Norway and the invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium paranoia set in. Sir Neville Bland, then Ambassador to the Hague, set the ball rolling with remarks like: “Every German or Austrian servant, however superficially charming and devoted, is a real and grave menace? When the signal is given, as it surely will by Hitler, there will be satellites of the monster all over the country who will at once embark on widespread sabotage and attacks on civilians and military.”
In spite of the lunacy of this remark, many took it seriously, and life became difficult for anyone who spoke German or acted foreign.
One of the first decisions of the Churchill Government was to tighten security along the vulnerable south and east coasts. Starting on the 10th May, all male category B) and C) Germans and Austrians living in that area were to be detained, among them boys of 16 years of age who were taken from foster homes and hostels without explanation.
Having been classified as an enemy alien it was soon my turn to be interned. When two plain-cloth men arrived to “arrest” me my thoughts went back to “Kristallnacht”. Our first stop was a Race Course where we were boarded out in the stables. Eventually we arrived in the Isle of Man Internment Camp. Boarding Houses surrounded by barbed wire. But not until we ran the gauntlet of the inhabitants who jeered us as bloody Germans and Nazis on our march from the harbour.
We were a weird mob. Made up of Nazis, Jews, Priests, all mixed up. As the summer went by, everybody became more desperate to leave and get back to normal life. More and more people were released, but they had someone pulling the strings for them. A strange opening was available to men over 18 years. They were given the option to join the British Army. From being an enemy alien to being a British soldier was certainly the height of hypocrisy.
Eventually the British Government was persuaded of their folly and I was released. Back to making more chairs.
Looking back with the knowledge we have now of the atrocities and concentration camps, which we knew little about then, helping to win the war would have been imperative. The only way I could be re-united with my parents was to win the war. By the end of 1941 more than 100.000 people had been killed or seriously injured in raids on Great Britain, and more was to come. The day before my 18th birthday, 7th of December, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and the war had spread to the whole of the world.
On my 18th birthday I went to the Army Recruiting Office and joined up. We still weren?t considered quite kosher so the only service open to us ?Germans? was the Pioneer Corps as non-combatants. I transferred to the 1st Royal Tank Regt., 7th Armoured Div. that landed in Normandy on D-Day. I changed my name from Guenther Baumgart to Garry Rogers as a precaution before going on active service.
On the 27th February 1945 I crossed the Rhine in to Germany. Almost exactly six years since I crossed it going in to opposite direction.
Garry Rogers, 13 May 2003