The oldest living Kindertransport survivor, Kurt Treitel, who has died aged 95, reached Britain from Berlin on March 24, 1939, just before his 17th birthday. He often recalled his huge joy and relief as he and his younger brother Guenter stepped onto British soil, and he retained a lifelong gratitude to his British hosts.
Kurt kept a detailed diary in fluent English about his experiences on the journey and in Nazi Germany.
While embracing his new British identity, Kurt also remained close to his German roots. He retained a love of German culture and stayed in touch with school-friends and relatives. His lifelong optimism about the essential goodness of human nature was reinforced by an immensely brave German Catholic couple, Martha and Albert Horlitz, friends who had risked their lives to save his and his father’s, on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
After a neighbour warned the Treitels that the Gestapo were next door and coming for them, Kurt and his father fled across Berlin to the Horlitzes as synagogues burned around them. Sending the Nazi maid out on an errand, the couple hid the pair in a small attic, where they remained in silence for five days lest the maid discover and betray them, until the worst violence had died down,
Born in Berlin, the eldest child of Hanna and Theodor Treitel, Kurt had grown up in a highly-cultured environment. Theodor and his brother Richard were successful lawyers to the entertainment industry and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The family counted close friends among high-ranking Weimar politicians and eminent people from the cultural world. They nevertheless retained their strong Jewish faith, welcoming rabbis of all denominations to their home. Kurt celebrated his bar mitzvah at Berlin’s largest synagogue, the Levetzowstrasse.
His classical education at the Friedrichswerdersche Gymnasium was cut short by the Nazis, but he was fortunately given a place at the American School of Berlin, where the charismatic headmaster Gregor Ziemer protected his Jewish pupils by hiding details of their names from the Nazis. Kurt had already become fluent in English by the age of 15 having studied with an English widow, with whom he discussed Sherlock Holmes stories. He developed a strong American accent and in Britain he became known as “the American gentleman.”
Initially reluctant to leave the “Germany of Goethe and Schiller,” his father knew the family would be penniless if they left, but events soon convinced him that departure was urgent. Kurt’s uncle’s wife had an English passport and the pair had moved to England, facilitating and financing the boys’ travel on Kindertransport. Eventually, Kurt’s parents and his younger sister Celia acquired an American visa and arrived in the UK in July, 1939.
They settled in Hendon, north London, but early in 1940, Kurt was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man. Despite missing his family, he described the lectures by prominent intellectual and artistic fellow campmates, as the closest thing to university.
Released from the camp, he worked as a gardener at Golders Green Crematorium before entering the tailoring trade in London and Bradford. He was even offered a starring role on the West End stage but at the last minute the show’s backer pulled out. He married German-Jewish refugee Renate Eichelgrün, (Elgin) in 1955. Now in his late 30s and with two children, he studied at night school to become a lawyer, completing his articles at a solicitor’s office during the day. They took in lodgers to help pay the bills. Qualifying in his mid-40s, he embarked on a near-30 year career, working for local and central government.
Kurt loved travel, gardening, photography and opera. He also collected art. An active member of Dunstan Road Synagogue, he taught Hebrew and contributed widely to Holocaust education, having been being interviewed by the Spielberg Foundation.
He and Renate had recently celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. His early Nazi experiences increased his determination to gain as much out of life as he could, and he radiated an ever popular warmth and optimism. He is survived by Renate, their children Richard, Jonathan, David and Caroline, and grandchildren, Alex, Olivia, Amelia and Conrad.
Kurt Treitel: born April 10, 1922. Died November 4, 2017.