The contrast could hardly have been more glaring — from the horror of Nazi-occupied Europe three-quarters-of-a-century ago to the splendour of the state apartments at St James’s Palace and an appointment with the Prince of Wales.
For the 400 guests at a lunchtime reception on Monday, the chance to meet the heir to the throne was the culmination of the Association of Jewish Refugees’ commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
Many of those present had been among the 10,000 unaccompanied children who found refuge with families in Britain after November 1938. The prince spent almost two hours meeting dozens of Kinder, listening to their escape stories, asking if they had ever returned to their native towns and inquiring whether they had been “put with a nice foster family” when they arrived here.
For the guests, it was also an opportunity to ask the heir to the throne about his own family — many offered him best wishes ahead of the birth of his first grandchild and asked about the Duke of Edinburgh’s recovery from surgery earlier this month. “He’s getting much better. He keeps very fit,” the prince reassured them.
While Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub mingled with communal leaders including World Jewish Relief president Henry Grunwald and Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock, the Kinder waited patiently for their royal moment.
Among the first to meet him were Joe and Bea Garten, who had travelled from Long Island, New York. Mr Garten told the prince how he had come to London in 1939, moving on to Chelmsford, where he lived with a non-Jewish family for three years. “He was charming,” Mr Garten said. “It means a lot. He seems interested in everybody and I was very impressed.”
A number of the Kinder were accompanied by their grandchildren, as the prince acknowledged. “It’s nice that the children keep the association going,” he observed. One such, Sophie Grosz-Dequenne, 14, from Wokingham, was with her grandmother, who had married a Kinder.
“It’s an honour to be here,” Sophie said. “Without what happened in the Kindertransport I wouldn’t be alive. I spoke to Prince Charles and he said it was good to see younger members of the family here. It is such an important event and it was worth missing a day of school to come.”
Avraham Shomroni, who travelled from Tel Aviv, told the prince how he had lived with a family in west Yorkshire after arriving in Britain as an 11-year-old from Vienna in December 1938, a month after his father had been taken away on Kristallnacht.
“I told Prince Charles that when he next comes to Israel, we will extend a warm welcome like we’ve had today,” Mr Shomroni said.
When her turn came to meet the prince, Erna Binke discussed the wine from the Trier region of Germany, a place from which she was forced to flee more than seven decades ago.
“I could not tell him I now hate the place with all my heart and soul,” she said after their conversation. “We who were lucky enough to come to England appreciated that it saved our lives.”
AJR chairman Andrew Kaufman said the reception was more than just a nice outing. “It shows how positive immigration issues can be. Look what an influence these people have been on Britain.”
He said it had been a “defining moment” watching the Kinder queuing to enter the palace, proudly clutching the British passports they had been asked to bring for identification and security purposes.
For Ruth Abraham — part of the AJR-Kindertransport organising committee, which planned the 75th anniversary events — it had been “a lovely experience, after all these years, to be recognised in this way”. The prince had invited AJR members to visit him at St James’s Palace because he could not make the previous day’s reunion in London, where 560 people heard former foreign secretary David Miliband tell of his father’s escape from Poland.
Sunday’s event also saw Sir Nicholas Winton, 104, reunited with the last child he had saved on the Kindertransport from German-occupied Czechoslovakia.