The children Britain took to its heart
A touching tale of Holocaust survival becomes the BBC’s Passover broadcast.
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Dorothy Oppenheimer, now Fleming, as a refugee from Nazi Austria
It is one of the most touching stories of survival in history — and, suitably for Pesach, it is the story of an exodus with an unexpectedly happy ending.
Seventy years ago, 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-occupied central Europe survived the Holocaust because they were sent to Britain to grow up here. They were welcomed by generous British families and were allowed to come thanks to the dedication of Jewish groups fighting to bring them to safety on the Kindertransport.
Most of them came to Britain between December 1938 and the start of September 1939. The majority travelled by train to Holland, continuing by boat to Harwich, Essex, before another train journey to Liverpool Street Station in London.
On Monday evening the tale of the evacuation and the emotional recollections of some of the wartime child refugees are recounted in The Kindertransport Story, BBC1’s special programme for Pesach.
Edith Eichner, now Breskin, pictured when she arrived with the Kinder-transport
Three Austrian former kinder, Dorothy Oppenheimer, Otto Deutsch and Edith Eichner, speak of life in Vienna under Nazi occupation, the nightmare of November 1938’s Kristallnacht when Jewish shops and synagogues were smashed in an orgy of destruction, and the pain of leaving their families without knowing if they would see them again.
Mr Deutsch, now 80 and living in Southend, Essex, recalls how he found out he was leaving Vienna: “I was very, very excited and I said ‘When are we going?’ and my mother said, ‘No, Otto, not we, only you are going away’.”
As the film makes clear, Otto would never again see his mother, father or his beloved sister Adela.
Dorothy, also now 80 and living in New York, was luckier: both her parents returned from the war. Edith’s father survived but returned “unrecognisable”, recalled the 84-year-old who now lives in north London.
One home which famously gave refuge to Jewish children was that of the Attenboroughs in Leicester, which took in sisters Irene and Helga Bejach.
The film director Lord Attenborough recalled his parents’ role in helping the sisters when he was the special guest at last November’s 70th anniversary reunion of the Kindertransport, held at JFS School in Kenton, north-west London. In his talk, part of which is shown in the BBC programme, he recalled the arrival of the girls.
“My mother and father, whenever they saw and felt an injustice, stood up and were counted, and here we are celebrating a great example of care for human dignity, for racial tolerance and for compassion — and for Irene and Helga, whom I adored.”
Seventy years on, he remembered exactly what his mother said when she informed him and his brothers, David — now best known for his natural history documentaries — and John: “We absolutely love you boys, but we will have to show even more love to these girls because they are here on their own and without their parents. It is entirely up to you, darlings, if they stay.
“They have helped to shape my life and we had no hesitation in taking them into our lives and loving and adoring and cherishing them. And I remember always Ma and Pa, who said ‘That is the way to live.’”
The Kindertransport Story will be shown on BBC1 on April 6 at 10.35pm