UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay
“Jews in Britain: The Rescuers and an Oral History of a Kindertransport Survivor”
by Daniel Katz
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Daniel Katz
I am a junior Political Science major and History minor with an interest in 20th century European history. I have many family members who are Holocaust survivors and I naturally took to exploring my family’s history. I knew my grandmother left Germany just before the outbreak of the war but I never really knew her story or understood what she experienced. Therefore, I chose to do an oral history project describing her experience on the Kindertransport and a book essay on the institutions within England that allowed the Kindertransport to occur.
Abstract (back to top)
This was a two part project. The first half is a book essay on Amy Zahl Gottlieb’s book Men of Vision: Anglo-Jewry's Aid to Victims of the Nazi Regime 1933-1945. In the essay I agree with Gottlieb’s argument and in many ways further it by claiming Anglo-Jewry did significant and above adequate work to help Jews in Germany, specifically in the rescuing of Jewish refugees from Germany.
The second portion is an oral history project. My grandmother left Germany a couple of months after Kristallnacht (November 1938) through an organization called the Children’s Movement in the United Kingdom, which was organized ultimately by the Anglo-Jewish community in conjunction with the reluctant British government. Commonly known as the Kindertransport, it rescued 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, relocating them to England to live with foster families. Once in England there was a new set of problems to face including the language barrier, prejudice and even internment. My grandmother was 14 years old when she left a her family in Germany for England in 1939 to live with a strange family. She did not know if she would see her family again. Amazingly they did reunite and endured much of the war in England in a small town near London. Her parents were interned on the Isle of Man but they found menial work to support themselves and the family.
Essay (back to top)
My grandmother Ruth Marks (maiden name: Sommer) was born in 1924 in Memmingen, Germany, a city in Bavaria, to a relatively traditional Jewish family. It was a small city with a tight knit community. She has two siblings, Sophie and Richard. They both live in and near Los Angeles now. All left Germany before the outbreak of war but not before the outbreak of Nazism. I have attempted to tell her story in the first person, I was generally careful in my notes. Being 86 years old, there were some holes in the story, but very few, since her knowledge of the events are very keen and seemed very accurate. Ruth and Sophie were both evacuated shortly after Kristallnacht via the Kindertransport to a family in England. Given the limited space I decided to go into detailed family history just before Kristallnacht but asked a few questions for background. My grandmother’s story is a first person account of one of thousands of children evacuated through the Kindertransport. The Kindertransport, as described by Grandmother, was the evacuation of 10,000 German Jewish children between the ages of three and fourteen , though they often took children under three years old. The first part of my project describes the story behind the Jews in England who worked to rescue German Jews. A common theme in both the book essay portion and my grandmother’s story is that while governments precipitated escape and rescue, it was really the hard work and kindness of individuals that allowed so many thousands of Jews to survive in England. I omitted certain aspects in the book essay portion to eliminate redundancy when mentioned in my grandmother’s story. Unfortunately due to scheduling difficulties the interviews had to be done by phone. I conducted two primary hour long interviews and three to four shorter interview sessions between February 5 and February 12, 2010.Only the first interview was done with a recorder, the rest were with careful notes. The recorder I was using could not pick up the phone conversation very well.
“We had aunts and uncles and we all lived in the same town. My father supported the family. My mother was strictly a housewife, didn’t work and oversaw the family. Father supported the family through a business he owned with his brother. It was a manufacturing business and did some recycling of materials and they wove hand woven carpets. We were allowed to work there when we were older. We were made to work there when we were older actually, to keep us out of trouble. Religious life was traditional, we kept kosher, we kept the holidays and Shabbat but we were not orthodox. We spoke German at home. We went to the public school, really an ordinary German school. At lyceum classes were small. We were taught two languages, first French and then secondary, English. I never really got to English.
“The Jewish community in Memmingnen was very tight knit. Everybody went to the same synagogue, everybody knew everybody else. You went when you wanted to and there was only one synagogue. There were not different sects.
“Relationships between Jews and non-Jews were fairly comfortable initially, everybody spoke. There were people that didn’t but I wasn’t aware of it, I didn’t hear too much in the beginning of problems. I remember very distinctily when kids threw rocks at me for being Jewish when I was six or seven. I went to my parents and they told me they could not do anything about it. One time a non-Jew was talking with Sofie at school and the teacher told her to stop or else her father would lose his job.
“My family was more German than Jewish. The Nuremberg Laws in 1935 said Jews were not patriotic. I can tell you of six men in my nearby family, three had served proudly in WWI for Germany. The Nuremberg laws were put into action in 1936 and pretty soon my father lost his business. We did not realize things were really bad until 1937 and in 1938. My uncle though had married a non-Jew. Her brother was high up in the SA. He kept telling her we needed to get out. Get out, get out he said. We did not think anything would come of Hitler. My uncle was an optician. He went to San Francisco to finish his degree so he could work.
“Before Kristallnacht in November 1938, the Nazis came and took away all of the men. They took them to prison and to camps. The hordes knew exactly who was Jewish and where you lived since you had to register yourself if you were Jewish. By a miracle we were not looted. We were all very scared. My aunt came to stay with us for she was too afraid to be at her house by herself. We lived on the third floor in an apartment building. This was 9 November 1938. Living above us was a young couple with two kids. We knew to stay away from him. He always wore his Nazi uniform. He was a big Nazi. The looters never came to our apartment. We are not sure exactly why, but when the horde came to our apartment he went outside to meet them. He told them to go away and not to loot. He said he had two young children and they would be woken and terrified by the noise. We never spoke to him. We do not know what his motivations were, if he was trying to help us or truly did not want to wake his children.
“My auntie the next morning went with Sofie to her house. They came back horrified and crying. It was then we understood the destruction. Her house, which we often went to before, was completely destroyed. Everything was smashed to bits. Valuables were stolen.
“My father was taken to the Dachau concentration camp and his brother was older and taken to a prison. We did not know what happened to him for 6 weeks until we got a card from Dachau from him. It said he was fine but he needed 10 Marks. My mom wasn’t sure what she should do. We were not exactly rich before the war but now we truly did not have much money. Was the money going to get to him? Well she sent the money and he soon came home. At that point it was clear we needed to get out.
“My mother was the one to actually make the decision. My father was a bit more short sighted. Well, not short sighted but he was worried about supporting us. Without a business what was he to do? Richard [Ruth’s brother], was actually in the United States already. By chance, my mom’s brother had run into a woman who said she may know somebody who could take Richard in. He was two years older than me and left in 1936. He graduated from an American High School and joined the United Sates Army. He could speak English, German and French and became an American Citizen. He was assigned to the intelligence agency because of his language skills.
“Anyway, it was decide Sofie and I should go on the kindertransport and we got our papers done. Well Sofie’s took longer because she was just over 16 and I was 14. I was within the age range, she was not. In March 1939, father took me to Berlin, which was where the trains were leaving. He had to take the train back early though because he had to go back and help Sofie. There were three other kids in the train station without parents as well. It was the big city but the Germans had the trains leave at midnight so the population wouldn’t know what was going on. They were also way off the beaten track, because the Nazis didn’t want people to know Jews were being let to leave [To clarify-While the train stopped in the city, it was not at the main central hub or the main train station but somewhere down the tracks within the city limits. However, the Jewish children initially gathered at the station. This was to avoid any suspicions the the Nazis were letting Jewish children leave Germany]. It was quite dramatic. One father ended up pulling his two year old daughter off the train at the last second because he could not let her leave.
“We were limited in what we could pack. We were allowed one suitcase and no valuables such as Jewelry and were not allowed to bring much money. We were all assigned a number, not a name, and had a badge around our necks. At the Dutch border, the train stopped and the Nazi guards checked everybody’s suitcase and went through every child’s personal belongings. There was much stolen. One boy brought a violin and that was prohibited. He played it to show he was a musician and it was not simply for money. The guard took pity on the boy and let him keep it. The older children took care of the younger ones as many were three years old or younger.
“When we got into Dutch territory the train stopped and Dutch people came and brought us cookies and hot chocolate. They hugged you and loved you. You needed that as a child, you were separated from your parents. You thought you would reunite with them again but you were not sure. We were taken from the Dutch side of the channel and taken to London. We were brought to the big station where there were lots of children. We were known by our numbers. They called out each number and each child was introduced to their family for the first time. The families adopted based on pictures. I waited and waited and waited. I sat and sat until my number was called. Finally my number was called and I met my family. They were named Cohen, a good Jewish name.
“They had four sons of different ages. I didn’t speak English and they didn’t speak German. It was very difficult to communicate. Luckily they spoke Yiddish and I could understand. One of the first problems was deciding what to call them. Mr. and Mrs. was too formal. It would be awkward. I could not call them mom and dad, for they had sons and it would be awkward for them and our parents were still alive. So we decide on Auntie and Uncle. They were very good to us and treated us like their children. School was not free at my level but we went to school and learned English. It was frightening though, the cultures were very different.
“For example, Auntie decided to have high tea one day and she brought out olives. I had never had olives before, they were no longer brought into Germany or we could not afford them. I forget. Well the olives had pits and I remember eating cherries and swallowing the pits so as not to show your parents how many cherries you had eaten. I did not see what auntie was doing with the pits, she did not have any pits left over. So I was swallowing the pits. Auntie asked me, ‘Ruthie, where are the pits?’
“I answered ‘I swallowed them like you.’ She laughed. She had been throwing them into the fire behind her and I didn’t see. Later I was reunited with Sofie who came to live with me. This was very comforting. We were living in the same house again. Soon, as the Germans began bombarding England, we were moved out of the cities. We were moved away from our families and to the country side. We lived with an old lady, a grandmother, she was not very good to us. We went back to the home near London with our original family.
“We would have been reunited with our parents at this point, it must have been 1940 or ’41. Mother had family in England at that point who signed for my parents. I am not sure how they managed that, the family had already signed for somebody else. Regardless they came over, and mother did housework and my father worked in a hotel. This is how they made money. However, they were interned with other Jews on the Isle of Man, for the British feared they would help the Nazis as they got closer. They did not say much about this but my parents said it was better than Germany.
“Father rarely spoke of Dachau, it was terrible and made us shudder. He would say they had to stand in very thin uniforms in the German winter. They had to stand straight for hours. If you moved you would get shot. Germans were supposed to be civilized.
“The underground in England and the stations were used as bomb shelters. The bombing was so frequent people would leave their blankets there on the beds set up and nobody would steal them. You heard the V2s and when the engines stopped you had three minutes until they exploded. The V1s were heard and when they stopped they exploded. It was quite scary being in England at that point. They once fire-bombed London Harbor and bombed the area for five days straight. It was on fire for five days.
“In 6th grade they taught us shorthand spelling, which was purely phonetic spelling. But at the time, the lady taking care of us was lousy at spelling. It was difficult trying to decipher it all. Some boys went to trade schools. Some joined the British Forces so they could go back to Germany to try to find their families. Few did. There was really no way to know exactly what was going on in Germany from England. Many families lost track of each other.
“Apparently when leaving Germany and packing, my parents had similar restrictions to me. They could only bring 200g of jewelry, no gold and the biggest a piece of jewelry could be was 10g. A Nazi officer watched my mother pack but we were able to get some furniture out. We still have a cabinet today at the house in Burbank.
“In England, Sofie wanted to become a nurse so I went with her to Cambridge, a beautiful college town. I found work there as well. Eventually most of my family got over to the United States.
“I constantly ask myself, if I were a German, what would I do? The common German was scared as well. You can only hope, if you are in a given situation you do the right thing, but hopefully we’ll never have to know. They bought into the propaganda. They said all Jews were rich communists who unfairly got their money. The common German believed this but you have to wonder, was it simply out of fear? There were people who sacrificed for us. The Quakers were a major reason for the Kindertransport [Interestingly, the Quakers had a major part in the rescue of these children. According to the article “What Quakers did for the Jews of Nazi Europe,” appearing in Kinderlink journal, a Quaker organization called the Society of Friends worked with prime minister Neville Chamberlain to allow 10,000 children to enter England. Additionally, organization members accompanied Jewish children on the trains in Germany to ensure their safe passage to Holland as the Nazis had instituted a rule that Jews could not use Public Transport. The Quakers were also present to accompany the Jewish children at the train station in London when the children arrived (Kurer 1).]. My host family was very good and even in Germany there were people who helped the Jews. If in the same situation though, would I do that? I can only hope I say yes. But there by the grace of God go I. We all ended up ok, in the United States. But even in the United States there was Japanese internment, hopefully you never have to make decisions like many Germans did.”
There is naturally more to my grandmother’s story but I ended it here to leave room for analysis. Clearly, she has interesting thoughts about Germans during WWII. As can be seen, the reason for the rescue of many Jews was the kindness of proportionately few people. Anglo-Jewry has often been criticized for not helping enough, but this story combined with my book essay clearly shows in fact those who could do something did a significant amount for strangers.
Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)
Books and Articles
Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi: