While Germany’s Reichsbahn is most infamous for carrying Jews to their final destination, the national rail system was also used to transport 10,000 Jewish children to safe haven in the UK. We met one of them.
“My mother had a choice. She could save me, or one of my brothers. Only one of us could go to England, and she thought it would be easier for a girl to be placed in a family. I was lucky.” That’s how the three-year-old Ruth Auerbach ended up at Berlin’s Friedrichstraße station on February 2, 1939, separated from her parents and siblings, about to board a train that would take her far away to an uncertain future.
Now 82 and living near Leicester, retired schoolteacher Ruth Schwiening has luck to thank for her long life – as well as the UK’s Kindertransport initiative, which shuttled some 10,000 unaccompanied German, Czech and Austrian Jewish children to safety in England in the 10 months leading up to World War II.
Ruth was born in 1935 in the Silesian town of Breslau (today Wroclaw in Poland). Her family lived on a farm where her father, Lothar, trained young Jews in agriculture in preparation for emigrating to Palestine. In the wake of the Nazis’ rise to power, the family moved to a village in Austria. During the mass Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9, 1938, Lothar was arrested; three days later, he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. On December 3, he wrote to his wife from the camp: “Prepare to sell everything, even if the price is low. […] Try urgently and as fast as possible by telegram confirmation to get English or Danish or other visa and tell me immediately…”
The letter never arrived. Ruth’s mother Hilde, along with Ruth and her two brothers, had already left Austria for Berlin, where they had relatives. “My mother wanted to find a safe place to live. It was clear we couldn’t stay in Germany anymore, and the goal was to emigrate to the UK,” says Ruth. Her father joined them later in December on his release from Dachau. That’s when they heard, through the Jewish community, that Britain was taking Jewish refugee children.
BRITAIN’S WILLKOMMEN POLICY
The news of Kristallnacht had been met with shock outside Germany. Less than two weeks after the pogroms, on November 21, 1938, the UK parliament decided to take in unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia without visas. Various Jewish, Quaker and Protestant organisations made the promise to find host families, and that the refugees wouldn’t be a financial burden for the state. Thousands of families volunteered to take in one or two children. No limit on the time or number of children was set.
“It was a spontaneous, emotional action, like the one Frau Merkel made with the refugees three years ago,” explains Holocaust historian Wolfgang Benz. “They took 10,000 in less than a year, but it could have been many more if it weren’t for the outbreak of the war.” No matter how generous the initiative was, the British government didn’t go as far as to pay for the trip, nor did they organise logistics. They even required a £50 bond per child for an eventual return ticket: they expected the children to go back to their home countries as soon as they were no longer in danger. And while the government thought that its movement could launch similar ones in other countries, very few followed suit. “The US was already taking a certain amount of people every year from Europe, and they didn’t enlarge the quota,” says Benz. Other countries like Sweden, Norway and Belgium took a few hundred each, putting the total number of rescued children at about 15,000.
“Adolf Eichmann himself made sure that the carriages would be on hand for the Kindertransport.”
The Germans cooperated: pre-Final Solution, the Nazis were pushing the Jews out of the country, so they voiced no objection to sending the children to the UK, helping attach extra carriages to regular trains run by the Reichsbahn. “[SS officer] Adolf Eichmann himself made sure that the carriages would be on hand for the Kindertransport,” comments Lisa Bechner of Kindertransporte 1938-1939, a Berlin-based organisation that helps gather Kindertransport documentation and reunite evacuees, who today refer to themselves as “Kinder”. The first Kindertransport left Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof by train on December 1, 1938 with 196 children on board. In Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, the word spread quickly within Jewish communities that the UK was accepting young refugees. “It was often single mothers, whose husbands had been arrested during Kristallnacht. They were alone and desperate, and saw this as a chance to save their children,” explains Bechner.
Lothar and Hilde Auerbach were still together, but they nonetheless saw the Kindertransport as a way to get at least one family member to safety. “The first step was to place me in a Jewish orphanage,” Ruth says. To be included, the children first had to go to a doctor to get a health certificate, which was then sent with a picture to London, where the immigration authorisations were issued. “A child with a health problem, even a small one, was certain not to be admitted,” says Bechner. A number was assigned to every child – Ruth’s was 2568. She had to wear it on her chest and put it on her suitcase – the only belonging the Kindertransport children were allowed to bring with them.
Parents were not allowed to accompany their children to the platform. “The Kindertransport didn’t use hidden stations, like the one the Nazis used for the deportations (see page 24). So, there was a special room belonging to the Jewish congregation, not far away from the station, where they could say goodbye,” explains Benz. “Of course the parting was pretty dramatic. Children would cry, parents faint… They didn’t want the public to witness that.” Ruth doesn’t recall her own traumatic farewell. “I don’t remember the departure, nor the journey. I was too young, and I feel lucky for it,” she says. “But for my parents it was awful. Can you imagine how painful it would be to let your beloved child be taken to an unknown future faraway from you, not knowing whether you’d see each other ever again?”
From Berlin, the journey took 20 hours with no stop until the border between Germany and the Hook of Holland, where the children took a boat to the British port of Harwich. They then had to take another train to London’s Liverpool Street station. The children were accompanied by a single adult, often a member of the UK’s Refugee Children’s Movement, always a Jew, for the whole journey. Once in England, most of the children were integrated into families. Ruth was sent to a well-off Jewish family in London, the Harts, that she describes as “very loving”. “I had a sister, Geraldine, 14 months older than me, and was considered a part of their family. I was very lucky.” Others were less so – some families used their Kindertransport adoptees as cleaners or helpers.
A BRITISH LIFE
“The Kinder could write letters home,” says Bechner. “But it took a long time for them to arrive, and if the parents were deported, the children often got no news at all. Most had to write after the end of war to find out what had happened.”
In fact, nine out of 10 never saw their parents again, most of them having been sent to their deaths. Ruth was, once again, very lucky. “After just over a year in England, a woman appeared in our living room. It was my mother. I didn’t kiss her, as my new English mother always told me not to kiss strangers.” Her parents and brothers had miraculously managed to flee Berlin, but in her 13 months at the Harts’, young Ruth had forgotten both her family and her mother tongue. “I wanted to stay with my new family, but my real parents took me back.” They moved near Coventry. “I think my English family was disappointed, as they expected my parents to have died in a concentration camp. They wanted to keep me.” Ruth never saw the Harts again, but has gotten back in touch with Geraldine, who now lives in Australia.
After the war, the whole family stayed in the UK. Hilde worked as a domestic helper and Lothar as an agricultural worker, his former job. “My parents never mentioned their time in Germany. It seemed to have been erased from their memory.” When Ruth speaks German now, it’s with a British accent. She became a German teacher in the UK, between Coventry and Leicester, and still lives there. She married a German citizen she met in Berlin, when she was studying German at the Free University. They speak English together.
In fact, few Kinder decided to come back to Germany. “They had no reason to do that. Their families had been murdered, and the younger ones could not speak German anymore. They felt better in the UK,” explains Benz.