Family & Education

These Kindertransport refugees didn't speak of their past for decades. Now their story is at the centre of a new exhibition

Ann and Bob Kirk both came to England as children on the eve of the Second World War. Even their children didn't know their stories.


The German-English dictionary is tiny, its pages yellowed with age, the spine broken with use. It was given to its owner, Ann Kirk, almost 80 years ago, as she arrived at Liverpool Street station in London, a ten-year-old girl, at the end of a very long journey from her home and parents in Germany.

I’m at the next table in the cafe of the Jewish Museum in Camden, as Ann hands the book over to curators. It will form part of an exhibition which opens next week, telling the story of the Kindertransport which brought Jewish children out of Germany to safety in the UK on the eve of the Second World War.

Beside Ann, her husband Bob unwraps the Iron Cross medal his father was awarded for fighting for Germany in the First World War. “It made no difference in the end,” he says. None of the couple’s parents survived the war.

They are not just at the museum to hand over the book and medals. They have been speaking to a group of school children about their experiences, something they do regularly, as do other Kinder.

This work is at the centre of the way the museum has approached the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which falls next week, the night of terror in Germany where Jewish buildings and businesses were attacked. The Kindertransport, which allowed 10,000 children to come to the UK was the British government’s response. As the Kinder grow older, the importance of preserving their stories has grown more important. The Kirks hope that by sharing their experience, people will have compassion for child refugees today.

I’m here to meet curator Kathrin Pieren who worked with the museum’s education department to build the exhibition around the stories of six Kinder, all now in their late 80s and 90s. Clips of their filmed narratives have been combined to create six films which tell the story of their life in Germany, their journeys, and life as refugees, as well as answering some of the questions that children often ask, such as “How important is Judaism to you?” and “What do you think about the Nazis today?”.

Visitors will leave the exhibitions with postcards, each bearing a quote from the films. “Move from being a passive bystander to an active upstander,” comes from Ruth Barnett. Bea Green’s reads: “You should aim at decency, generosity and I think, above all, reason.” Pieren’s hope is that visitors will feel almost as though they have met the people interviewed.

The following week, I visit Ann and Bob Kirk in their flat in Northwood, to find out more about their lives. Their sunny living room is packed with family pictures; they have two sons, three grand-children and have just welcomed their second great-grandchild.

Their sons David and Andrew, now in their 60s, knew almost nothing of their parents’ past until 1992 when the rabbi of their local Liberal shul, Andrew Goldstein, asked them to speak at a meeting to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht. They were nervous but agreed. “It was a bit of a relief,” says Bob, “to be able to talk about it, to ‘come out’.”

Since then they have hardly stopped telling their stories, speaking at schools, synagogues, events for Holocaust Memorial Day. Ann speaks on her own at primary schools but otherwise they are together, sharing the narrative, showing a Powerpoint presentation which uses photographs from the past and present to tell two stories which are very similar in outline — the flight from Germany, the murdered parents — but very different in detail. Some audiences are full of questions — a recent visit to a Muslim girls’ school in Slough was particularly successful. Jewish children, they say, can be “less responsive. Maybe they feel they know about it already.”

Bob was 13 when he left his family in Hanover. His family had lived in Germany for generations. His father resisted the idea of leaving the country which he’d been proud to fight for but the horror of Kristallnacht, when Hanover’s synagogue was set on fire, persuaded him that the family were in danger. Bob left for England in May 1939. He never saw his parents again.

Each child had to have a sponsor willing to pay their way to England and on arrival Bob was sent to his sponsor’s house — Mr Smith, who lived in a beautiful house in Hampstead and promptly handed Bob over to his housekeeper. Mr Smith had generously sponsored six children - £50 each, an expensive undertaking of nearly £20,000 in today’s money. Bob stayed there for a week until the next sponsored child arrived, and Bob had to move on. He ended up at a hostel in Kent, home to 150 other refugees. Later he was evacuated to Whipsnade. He had little contact with the Jewish community at that point.

Eventually, he joined the army and was sent to Yorkshire, where he worked as an interpreter in a PoW camp. He enjoyed this. “It wasn’t just sitting and translating all the time, you learned a lot about managing the camp.” The task was made easier because most of the prisoners had served in Africa. “I never had any problems.”

Ann was extremely unusual among the child refugees, in that she and her parents knew where she was going. After Kristallnacht they had sheltered in a flat owned by her mother’s best friend. The same friend came to London where she visited the East End and met two sisters, Milly and Sophie Levy, voluntary social workers. The sisters agreed to take Ann. Letters and photographs were exchanged, so Ann knew who would be meeting her.

“It must have been a great comfort to my parents,” she reflects. She said goodbye to them in Berlin, and they told her to look out of the window at the next but one station, there she saw them “waving frantically” . It was the last time she ever saw them.

The sisters became her “aunties”, and although they were about the same age as her parents, “they seemed very old-fashioned. They were much more strict.” Like the mysterious Mr Smith, they lived in Hampstead, and tried to get Ann a place at South Hampstead School for Girls, but the head teacher said she must go to boarding school to learn English. So Ann, like Bob, was dispatched to Kent, to a school which she “hated — the girls thought I was a Nazi; there was a lot of bullying”.

She picked up English quickly but was then evacuated to Berkhampstead where, luckily, South Hampstead School had also been sent. The head teacher was persuaded to take her as a pupil and, eventually reunited with the Aunties, she thrived.

The dictionary that they had given her at the station turned out to be a gift that shaped her life. She loved English and History at school, and wanted to go to university but the Aunties insisted that she trained as a secretary. They said that, “in case my parents, by some miracle, survived the war I must be in a position to support them. And they were quite right.”

She worked as a secretary and went to evening classes at the London School of Printing to learn to be an editor. Eventually, the girl who knew no English when she arrived, ended up editing thick medical tomes — something she continued to do as a freelance when she had her family.

The couple met at a social club for young Jewish refugees. Its name Achtudt meant “togetherness”. Ann, busy with her evening classes went once and then waited six months before going again. As she walked in, Bob remembered her.

It didn’t take long for them to become engaged but first Bob was grilled by the Aunties — “I was sent out of the room,” recalls Ann — about his prospects and their plans. When they married, the Aunties offered them either a large wedding or a small wedding and a cheque. As refugees, with no family to help them, they were grateful for the latter.

“They did everything a parent would have done,” says Ann now. “They paid for a private school and made themselves responsible for me.” Bob too had a pair of siblings to thank for help, later on. He trained as a company secretary but it was hard to find work. Eventually he had an interview with a pair of French Catholic brothers who ran a textile firm — the same sector as Bob’s father’s business in Hanover. He explained to them that he might have to take time off, for Jewish communal work. “They said, that’s fine, we understand, we’re involved with our church.” Bob worked there for 36 years, eventually becoming Finance Director. His career at the firm meant they could at last stop counting every penny.

Another source of security has been the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood. Ann’s Aunties were members there, and she introduced Bob to the community when they met. He was very impressed that younger members could run a service, and over the years they have been involved with the shul’s management and running, still attending every Shabbat.

They have just returned from Hanover, a trip with their extended family, to dedicate Stolpersteine for Bob’s parents outside the house where they lived. These small concrete blocks, set in the pavements, are now all over Germany, marking the loss of the murdered Jews who once lived there. There are also Stolpersteine for Ann’s parents in Berlin. Bob was able to go into the house where he had once lived. Some memories were perfectly preserved, other aspects of the house - like the back garden - had been utterly lost. It was – he pauses, struggling for the right word - “cathartic.”

Why didn’t they talk about their experiences before 1992, apart from occasionally to each other? It was, they explain, the way of most refugees, to face the future rather than dwell on the past. Even Ann’s schoolfriends from South Hampstead, many of them German Jewish refugees, never talked about their life before England.

This way of coping was almost an instruction from her father. He was able to write to her after she came to England, often under the name of non-Jewish friends. One letter, in December 1943, broke the terrible news that her mother had been taken away. His last message came a few months later.

She has always tried to live by the advice he sent her in June 1942. “Live your life to the full. Be happy. Tell the truth. And do not grieve.”

The Jewish Museum’s Kindertransport exhibition is on from November 8 to February 10.

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