Our lives as ‘bloody foreigners’ — the Kindertransport children 75 years on
Judy Benton as a 17-year-old
In 1938, 10,000 Jewish children were taken from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and delivered into British care in a mission organised by World Jewish Relief (then the Central Fund for British Jewry), that became known as the Kindertransport.
A generation of young Jewish lives were saved, but dramatically altered. Seventy-five years later, the effects of this uprooting still run deep, as these two Kindertransport refugees reveal as they reflect on their lives since the rescue.
JUDY BENTON, AGED 92
Judy Benton was a 17-year-old schoolgirl living in the small town of Meissen, Germany when her parents were arrested by the Gestapo in December 1938. After 75 years in the UK, she still feels a daily culture clash.
“I have never forgotten a thing.
Harry Heber, with his father and sister Ruth in Innsbruck before fleeing the Nazis
“I came home from school one day and my neighbour told me the Gestapo had been for my parents and would be coming back for me.
“Today at 17, you’re an adult — in 1938 you were an idiot. I still thought the stork brought children.
“But I was very practical; I took my passport and a few other documents and ran to the train station.
“Arriving in England was very hard. I’d learned English at school, but couldn’t understand a word anyone said. I’d also come from a tiny town — all of a sudden, I was in a huge city with double-decker buses and the Underground. It was all so different.
“I explained my story, and they sent me to a hostel on Cambridge Heath Road, in the East End.
“Everything was alien. The bus ride took an hour, whereas in Meissen everything took 10 minutes.
“I got off at Whitechapel and immediately saw lots of Jewish people running around. A policeman even spoke to me in Yiddish. Suddenly, I felt at home because my parents had always spoken in Yiddish to me.
“The hostel was filthy. It was full of refugees who had fled from eastern Europe. There were three of us sleeping in one bed.
“After three weeks, I was assigned to agricultural college in Surrey. There, I met 60 people or so — all refugees. It helped because I was part of a crowd who were the same as me. I wasn’t completely alone.
“But still, I couldn’t get used to the weather — that horrendous fog — the food, and the people in general. “To them I was a ‘bloody foreigner’, an enemy alien.
“I told them I was Jewish, that I was on their side and that my parents were in Auschwitz, but they thought it was all propaganda. They complained when I stood in line for sugar, saying the Germans were eating all their rations. They simply were not educated.
“Gradually, I learned to behave in an English way — I stopped whistling in the street like I had done at home, for example. I also ate bacon for the first time. My parents were kosher, but I couldn’t resist it — it was so good. So I said: Baruch atah Adonai and ate. As far as I was concerned, I had made it kosher.
“It took years for me to learn the language properly — that was always a big challenge. I made a lot of mistakes and English people didn’t laugh, but they didn’t correct me either. I remember when I was pregnant, but didn’t know the word for it, I went to the doctor. I said to him: ‘Please could you look into my undercarriage?”
“I met my husband, John, at college. He was also a refugee, from Berlin. He was at home hiding under a bed when his parents were taken.
“I would have liked to have the opinion of my parents at the time, to ask them if this was the right guy for me. But I had to make my own decisions. Things like that — you go home and you talk it over with your parents. But there was no one for me to ask.
“My husband was very bad-tempered in England, because he didn’t know how to deal with his feelings of alienation. It was frustration and we all felt it. None of us were normal.
“John and I had a lot in common. We married when I was 21. We were like many people who got married and had families right away — it killed the loneliness.
“We soon changed our surname from Beigeleisen to Benton — they used to call us Mr and Mrs Benghazi. It was easier for us to get on by changing it. I tried to blend into society in different ways: I did war work, I did fire-watching, I did everything I could to prevent Hitler coming here.
“We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb with our son and daughter. Our social circle was full of German Jews. We shared the same connection. I think birds of a feather really do flock together.
“I’ve retained a great deal of my German identity and I still speak German. I’ve also been back to Meissen three times. Last year, I went to see them lay a Stolperstein (a memorial paving stone) in front of my parents’ house. It listed their names and that they had been murdered in Auschwitz.
“My whole family came with me: my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and supported me as I made a speech in German in front of 350 people.
“It was so strange being back there. I couldn’t believe how much it had changed, yet I still recognised every street, every corner.
“People came to me and said: “Do you hate us?” I replied that I had hated them for a long time, but that hating makes you ill, and I didn’t want to get ill. The mayor had not even been born 75 years ago — how could I hate him? All I asked was that they made sure this never happened again.
“If I hadn’t had to leave Germany, I would have studied to be a doctor. I wanted to be a children’s doctor, but it was impossible. I don’t think about it a lot now. I can switch off. Some people think about it again and again and start crying. But I think you have to let go and move forward: it’s no good if you can’t do anything about it.
“But I do still feel like a foreigner in England. If you meet English people, you have to adapt yourself. I know that now and I know how to adapt.
“For a very long time, I had panic attacks. The doctors told me that I was like a pressure cooker, stifling my feelings. I cope, but it can be hard sometimes. I’m 92: if I don’t cope now, then when?
“I don’t actually think I’m normal: inside — I’m like cement. I don’t have the right feelings any more because I don’t let it go deep. I am sure that there is psychological damage there. It’s not normal that you don’t cry, but it’s a means of survival.”
HARRY HEBER, AGED 82
Harry Heber and his sister Ruth were aged seven and 10 respectively when they were sent to the UK, after their family fled Innsbruck, Austria. Their parents joined them in Britain nine months later.
“Our family business in Innsbruck was defaced with the word “Juden” and Gestapo officers stood outside the shop telling everyone to stay away from Jewish businesses.
“My parents heard about the scheme to send children to England, and got us on the second transport.
“After arriving in England, we were taken to an abandoned holiday camp in Dover Court, Sussex. Though I couldn’t speak a word of English, I managed to pipe up: “What about my sister?” They found her, but we were separated again.
“She was taken to a wealthy home in Hastings, while I was put in an elderly couple’s farmhouse without any electricity. The atmosphere was alien and I wanted my mother, so I cried for three days and three nights straight.
“My parents were able to come over as Ruth had convinced the Hastings people to take them in as domestics: my father was the butler and my mother was the cook. That was a bit of luck as World War Two broke out three days later.
“Those first feelings of being an alien — it was more than just a culture shock. I couldn’t speak English, I missed my parents and I missed my sister. But young children do adjust.
“I was able learn English quickly. When my parents arrived, I couldn’t talk to them any more. I’d completely forgotten my German and they didn’t speak English at all. My mother was devastated. But once they got me back living with them, I learned again.
“We considered ourselves very lucky in many ways — only about 10 per cent of children who came on the Kindertransport saw their parents again. Mum had to leave her own mother behind because they couldn’t get a visa for her, and dad’s brothers were killed.
“I trained to be an optician, and left home at the age of 27 to set up my own practice in Bristol. I came back to London 19 years later when I got married.
“My wife was born in London and it was her second marriage: my Austrian culture didn’t really feed into later life. But I was always been involved with the Jewish community, especially when I got back to London.
“I didn’t keep in contact with Kindertransport children. People wanted to forget it — they had a new life to make so didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t until the 1980s when the story really started to come out — after that, you had this plethora of activity and publicity.
“We had a reunion in 1989 and, lo and behold, I ran into people who I had come to know socially, but had no idea that they had also been on the Kindertransport.
“I primarily think of myself as Jewish. Of course, I have affiliations with Britain and Austria; but primarily, what’s good for the Jews is good for me.
“That being said, I look at England as my homeland. After the war, my father was offered his business back in Innsbruck, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of it. He was very happy to be in England and actually became very patriotic.
“In 1997, I was invited back to Innsbruck by the town council because they were erecting a memorial to those murdered on Kristallnacht. I had very mixed feelings. For years, they were silent about the Anschluss with Germany, but when I visited, I saw how the youth wanted to know what happened and make amends. That was when my feelings changed.
“I don’t think about how life would have been had the war not happened. Obviously, it would have been different. I would have had a good education. My parents must have had regrets, but in the end they were pleased to have escaped and be able to live their lives here.
“I now volunteer my services as an optician at WJR. Various communities in eastern Europe have their eyes tested, and I send them new glasses.
“WJR brought me here: that is my incentive. It is something I can do to give back just a little of what I received 75 years ago.”