'Our prayer room was devastated. The image is seared into my memory'

Eighty-one years on, a survivor of the pogrom tells his story, from being attacked by a member of the Hitler Youth to arriving in the UK on the Kindertransport


I was born in Berlin in 1929, the eldest of three children. In 1936 my family moved to Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland, where my father Harry had been appointed head of the Jewish realgymnasium (school) on the Rehdigerplatz.

Eighteen years earlier he had been conscripted as a teenager to serve in the trenches on the Western Front until the Armistice. My mother Frieda hailed from Fulda in Hesse, where her Nussbaum family had lived since at least the 16th century.

Neither of these stories were to make any difference to the way the Nazis dealt with us. By 1938, when I was nine, we were already banned from using the park benches, reserved for so-called “Aryans only”.

I recall hearing, from behind closed curtains in our apartment, the mass hysteria on the occasion of Hitler’s motorcade through the streets of Breslau for the city’s sports festival in July of that year.

On the morning of November 10 after Kristallnacht, my mother, younger sister and I picked our way through streets littered with shards of plate glass from Jewish shopfronts, to help retrieve what we could from the wreck of our little Pinhas Synagogue in the Hoefchenstrasse. (My father happened to be in Berlin at the time and had fortunately managed to evade arrest.)

We passed the vandalised Storch Synagogue, its windows smashed and its contents heaped outside, as well as the burning Neue Synagogue, the second largest in Germany, with fire appliances in attendance merely to ensure the flames would not spread to adjoining property.

Our own prayer room, situated on the first floor of a residential building, was a scene of utter devastation. The Torah scrolls were lying on the floor tattered and urinated on, the benches upturned and prayer books flung in all directions. It is an image seared into my memory.

I remember my mother weeping bitterly over a newspaper headline announcing a fine of 1 billion reichsmarks imposed on the German Jewish community for the damage inflicted on its own property.

For some reason we had to abandon our home after Kristallnacht to occupy rooms in my father’s school. I recall one of his colleagues returning through the school gate from Buchenwald, haggard almost beyond recognition.

While walking with my mother in a park in December, a Hitler Youth, ignoring her screams, attacked and flung me into the snow. Fortunately I managed to escape unhurt, but the opportunities for our escape as a family were now vanishing rapidly.

In March 1939, my eight-year-old sister, Ruth, received a Youth Aliyah permit for entry to Eretz Yisrael. She was put by my father on a train to Trieste, with a placard around her neck asking that she be helped find the right ship to Haifa where she would be met by an uncle. Fiercely independent even at that young age, she arrived there safely eight days later.

In April my parents were advised I had been granted Kindertransport permit no 5156 through the efforts of my father’s colleague Erich Klibansky, head of the Jawne school in Cologne.

I recall our group of parents and children being addressed on a station platform in Berlin with my father holding me tight on his lap before I boarded the train.

I remember nothing of the journey to Hook of Holland, nor the Channel crossing to Harwich, but do recall someone trying valiantly to welcome us to Britain in impenetrable German at Liverpool Street station.

I was taken to a hostel in Brighton for about 30 refugee boys. We slept in dormitories. None of us had any idea when we would see our parents again. I was to be one of the fortunate few: most of the group never did.

Apart from being the second youngest (I was now 10), I believe I was the only one from an observant Jewish home in a group where many had come from wholly assimilated families.

In this fraught environment it was inevitable that, in Lord of the Flies fashion, some of the boys would turn on me. “Warum bist Du heiliger als uns?” (“Why are you holier than us?”), I was asked one morning.

I believe I became deeply traumatised in all these circumstances. Whereas I am now happily proficient in a number of languages, I did not learn a word of English during my six months there and sat through seemingly endless days at school, unable to comprehend virtually anything that went on around me.

The one bright interlude in my week was my singing in a little choir for Shabbat morning service in Brighton’s magnificent Middle Street synagogue. Together with memories of my mother’s lovely voice at the piano, that redeeming Shabbat experience was to secure firmly for me the pivotal role of music in my life alongside my Judaism.

In August my father managed to reach England on a temporary visa for himself only, to spend days on end in London’s government and Jewish community offices in his attempts to extricate my mother and four-year-old brother Raphael from Germany.

On Sunday, September 3 — I recall it was a lovely day — he came to fetch me from the hostel and sat me down on a park bench. “You know they’ve declared war today”, he said, “I don’t know when we will see your mother or Raphy again”.

Barely had he uttered those words than we saw a woman with a young child approaching us in the distance. We literally could not believe our eyes. Unbeknown to my father, my mother had succeeded in escaping on one of the last trains before the borders were closed for war. She had traced us from London to a Brighton park, inquiring about our whereabouts along the way.

Miraculously, we had all escaped to freedom, but my parents had no permission to stay. Instead they had succeeded, notwithstanding South Africa’s Aliens Act of 1937 barring entry to Jewish refugees, in securing entry permits for that country expiring in December 1939 on the strength of guarantees given by an uncle of mine in Cape Town.

Embarking on the Arundel Castle at Southampton on 9 November 1939, precisely a year since Kristallnacht, I recall my father’s bitter tears as the band struck up God save the King when they released the ship’s slip lines from the quay. His whole world had been taken from him.

Further trials were to come. Instead of making straight for the Cape the ship, blacked out at night, zig-zagged to and fro across the Atlantic to evade the U-boats as well as the German pocket battleship Graf Spee on their hunt for British shipping.

Inevitably we missed our entry expiry date when reaching Cape Town, were refused debarkation, and were held on the ship as she called in turn at Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, then returning via those ports on her way back to Southampton.

My parents were desperate. They had no entry permits for the UK and were all too aware of the attempts by the SS St. Louis earlier that year to discharge her refugee passengers in port after port without success.

But miracles do happen. A young Oxford graduate by name of Zena Stern had befriended us on board. She was going out to marry her fiancé Abe Herman, a Jewish Agency emissary to the Johannesburg Jewish community.

She telegraphed him details of our plight, whereupon Abe contacted the South African Jewish Board of Deputies who petitioned the Smuts Government. In January 1940 they finally let us land in Cape Town after two months at sea.

Years later, Abe Herman was to become Avraham Harman, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and ultimately Head of the Hebrew University, while his wife Zena was to be elected to the Executive Board of Unicef. These two remarkable people had effectively made a new life possible for us, a precious gift for which I was eventually able to thank Avraham in Jerusalem.

For a time we were utterly impoverished in sunny South Africa, and there was no party for my barmitzvah in the early summer of 1942. But I was fortunate to be alive.

Unbeknown to me, Erich Klibansky, the Cologne headmaster who was instrumental in saving my life, was murdered with his entire family by the Nazis in a forest near Minsk at around the time that I was singing my first portion of the Torah in Cape Town’s Great Synagogue.

Whereas I have not spoken until now about this first part of my story because I did not want it to overshadow the rest of my life, I thank a merciful Providence for giving me the zest to celebrate that life which might, in other circumstances, have been taken from me.

Eli has retired from his architecture and planning consultancy and now focuses on researching, writing and speaking on Jewish Medieval Art, a lifelong interest. Sponsorships in aid of Jewish Care for his recent skydive celebrating the 80th anniversary of his Kindertransport rescue remain open until the end of the month at JustGiving.

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