Harwich celebrates its role in Kindertransport rescue

The port was the point of entry for the majority of the 10,000 children on the Kindertransport


The role of the small Essex port Harwich in welcoming child refugees from Nazism more than 80 years ago has been immortalised with the unveiling of a bronze commemorative sculpture at the town’s quayside.

Harwich was the point of entry for the majority of the 10,000 children on the Kindertransport, and members of the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) were among those at last Thursday’s ceremony.

Sculpted by award-winning Essex artist Ian Wolter, the monument, Safe Haven, depicts children of varying ages and emotions descending from a ship’s gangplank. It also features poignant quotes from the refugees and there is space between the figures so children can explore it.

The artwork was unveiled by IT pioneer and philanthropist Dame Stephanie Shirley, who arrived at Harwich on the Kindertransport at the age of five.

She recalled hazy memories of her journey: “The lost doll, rather than the lost home; the little boy who kept being sick; sleeping on sheets of corrugated cardboard; the labels round our necks.”

However, she would never forget her first sighting of Harwich “as a thousand of us children came in from the grey North Sea after a horrendous two-and-a-half days’ journey from Nazi Europe”.Another of the former child refugees was Father Francis Wahle. Born in Austria in 1929, all his grandparents were Jewish but his parents converted to Catholicism. Yet under the Nuremberg Laws implemented in Austria following the 1938 Anschluss, he was considered Jewish.

“It was my mother’s energy that saved us,” he told the JC. “She was at every embassy trying to find a way for us to escape.” In January 1939, he and his sister Anne travelled to England, via Harwich, where they were overseen by the Catholic Committee for Refugees.

They later discovered that their parents survived the war after hiding in Vienna. “We were some of the lucky ones. I am grateful to God,” he said.

Father Wahle trained for the priesthood in Rome. His sister returned to Vienna where she spearheaded interfaith relations through her directorship of the Information Centre for Christian and Jewish Understanding.

Also at the ceremony was Ruth Jacobs (née Heber), who was aged ten, and brother Harry, then seven, when they arrived at Harwich from Vienna in December 1938, their family having been uprooted by the Nazis from their home city of Innsbruck.

“The last thing I remember my parents telling me is that we must stick together,” Mrs Jacobs recalled.

“However, when we arrived in England, I was taken in by a well-to-do family in Sussex while Harry was sent to live on a farm.

“We had been learning Italian as we hoped to join some family we had there. We spoke no English.”

Mr Heber added: “I spent three days crying my eyes out — it was such an unfamiliar environment to me.” He was soon sent to a boarding school, “which was preferable”.

The family in Sussex managed to get the siblings’ parents to the UK as domestic workers three days before war broke out. “However, we soon had to leave this house as we were considered ‘enemy aliens’ who were not allowed to live close to the coast,” Mrs Jacobs said.

“Our parents went to London and I managed to get a scholarship at Stroud School for Girls, where I had an excellent education.

“I lived with a nearby family who had a small baby. I spoke to one of the family last night and have visited them. They helped me when I needed it most and I will never forget that.”

She went on to run a chain of clothing stories. Her brother forged a successful career as an optician and has since put his skills to use, volunteering with World Jewish Relief to send prescription glasses to poverty-stricken Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

Bob Kirk, 97, and his wife Ann, 94, had travelled separately from Germany on the Kindertransport, eventually meeting at a club for young Jewish refugees. The couple’s parents were all murdered by the Nazis.

“Of course I was scared before I made the journey but it saved my life,” said Mr Kirk, who with his wife, has been heavily involved in Holocaust education.

The German Ambassador, Miguel Berger, and Lord Pickles, the UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust Issues, were also at the unveiling.

AJR chief executive Michael Newman said that “Harwich will always have a special place in the hearts of those refugees who arrived on the Kindertransport.

“AJR is proud to be a prominent supporter of the effort to establish this memorial that honours them and their loved ones who sent them to safety. And also to sponsor the development of the accompanying educational programme that will spread awareness of this vital history and inspire and educate generations of visitors.”

The project is under the aegis of the Harwich Kindertransport Memorial and Learning Trust.

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