Exactly 80 years ago, the first train rescuing 200 Jewish children from Nazi Berlin arrived in Britain.
Their orphanage had been destroyed during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi sympathisers terrorised Jews throughout Germany and Austria.
Their journey was part of the Kindertransport,German for children’s transport, a rescue effort transporting some 10,000 children aged between three and 17 who fled the Nazis in the run-up to the second world war.
Most were Jewish, and more than half the children never saw their parents again.
Now 95 and living in Bournemouth, Walter Kammerling was one of those child refugees. Aged just 15 at the time, he had been taken to visit his sick father in hospital in Vienna, before he was quickly bundled onto a train.
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He said: “When I said goodbye to father in the Jewish hospital, he was in tears. It was the first time I’d seen him cry. It was very hard, I didn’t really want to leave his bedside.”
Kammerling said: “My mother and two sisters came to the station. I was somewhat in a daze. I remember it all, but I can’t remember any details somehow.”
After arriving in England on 12 December 1938, Kammerling was transferred to a farm in Northern Ireland, returning to England in 1942 where he was reunited with his younger sister Erica, who had also made it to safety.
“The other sister, Ruthi, I never saw her again. She had been too old for Kindertransport and too young to get a domestic permit to leave the country so she had to stay with my parents.”
Ruthi and her parents were sent to Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in former Czechoslovakia in 1942. From there, Kammerling said: “Father was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, mother and Ruthi followed him.”
Harry Heber, aged 87, was extraordinarily lucky to be reunited with his parents.
A former optician living in St John’s Wood, Heber said: “This anniversary is very meaningful. I’ve been a lifetime – 80 years – in this country and I’m very happy that I was saved from the Holocaust.”
Heber was seven and his elder sister Ruth was ten when they made the journey to England after their family were driven from their native Innsbruck in Austria.
“My father was in business there but he had to give it up because the Nazis put up scrolls saying this was a Jewish shop and people shouldn’t shop there. A Gestapo [secret police] man in his black uniform also stood at the entrance to the shop, sort of defying people to come in to trade with the Jews, so he couldn’t last very long.
“I remember the day of the Anschluss (annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany) because I was standing with my grandmother and my sister in the main high street in Innsbruck and I saw the German army coming in with a band in front and the tanks and the troops behind. This was followed by probably a hundred people wearing Swastika armbands.
“At that sort of age you don’t really understand it all but I knew that something drastic was happening.”
The Heber siblings left on the Kindertransport on 18 December 1938.
On arrival in Harwich, the children were accommodated in a disused holiday camp before Harry was taken to a farmhouse to live with a couple in their 60s.
He said: “Of course we couldn’t converse. I had no English and they had no German and I was very unhappy. I was crying for three days and nights and they suddenly realised that the situation wasn’t going to work out.”
He was moved to a boarding school in Kent, where amongst children of his own age, his English became fluent. In fact, when his parents came to visit him just three days before the war broke out: “I couldn’t understand my mother because I had lost all my German and she couldn’t speak English so we both burst out crying.”
By a stroke of luck, the house his sister Ruth was taken to kept servants and noticing a staff shortage, the little girl was able to persuade the owners of the house to take her parents on as domestic help, thus sponsoring them to remain in the country and allowing the family to reunite.
Heber said: “So they applied and they came and that’s how eventually we became a family once more. It worked out well because I was brought up eventually living with my parents, whereas the majority of the children who came on the Kindertransport never saw their parents again.”
Harry Bibring and his sister Gertie boarded a Kindertransport train in March 1939, having been assured their parents would come to join them in England in just two months. They never saw them again.
Now aged 92, Harry said: “We boarded the steam train at 10 o’clock at night. Except to take on coal and water, it didn’t stop at any stations, until it got to the Dutch border.
“It was remarkable for my sister and I because the platform was completely filled with people who wanted to shake hands with us. They gave us sweets, toys, flags, you name it. They opened the doors and tried to kiss us and it was the first time in the year that I had spent under Nazi rule that I met non-Jewish strangers who actually wanted to talk to me, let alone love me. Tears flowed, it was very lovely.”
From the Netherlands, a cross channel ferry took the children to the British port of Harwich, after which the children were brought by train to London’s Liverpool Street Station.
Bibring said: “We pulled in on the 15 March 1939. It was a misty day and all the windows were steamed up. We pulled them down and I said in German, as I couldn’t speak a work of English: ‘Gertie, somebody very important died here.’ And she replied: ‘What makes you say that?’ I said: ‘There’s a load of undertakers – here at Liverpool Street.’ She asked me: ‘Where do you see undertakers?’ I pointed and she said: ‘You idiot. Those are policemen.’”
The children were taken to a foster home in Willesden, where Bibring’s bewilderment continued.
He said: “Gertie had to translate everything for me. The first thing I found strange there was some white stuff with brown edges on it, lying on the table. I asked Gertie what that was and she said ‘it’s white bread.’ Then they brought a machine on the table and burnt it and called it toast. I also didn’t think much of that.”
The children’s acclimatisation to their new home was anything but smooth. They were separated, with Gertie being kept on to look after the home and the family’s seven-month-old baby. As there was only one spare room, Harry was shipped out to various family members on a weekly basis, returning only to spend Sundays with his sister on her day off.
By now the two-month deadline promised by their parents had passed, but both children still had great hope they would be reunited once more. Until war was declared, the children continued to receive letters from their parents, promising the separation would not last much longer. But by November 1940 it was looking ever more unlikely.
On the 26 November 1940, the area his parents were living in was declared a “Jew-free zone” and Bibring’s father was dragged from his room by the Nazis and put on a van to a concentration camp.
He said: “My father always had a weak heart and as a result of all this happening, with his children out of reach… he had a heart attack in that van and died. They brought the body back for my mother to bury. He was the lucky one of the two and lies in a proper grave in a proper cemetery in Vienna.”
Six million Jewish people were murdered during the genocide in Europe in the years leading up to 1945, and the Jews are rightly remembered as the group that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party most savagely persecuted during the Holocaust.
World Jewish Relief (then called The Central Fund for German Jewry) was established in 1933 to support the needs of Jews in both Germany and Austria, and maintains the records for much of the children who arrived in the UK via Kindertransport.