‘My father escaped the Nazis on the Kindertransport’
Karen Millie-James knew nothing of her dad’s remarkable childhood until letters discovered after his death revealed his incredible story
On 19 July 1939, a 12-year-old Jewish boy was sent out of Germany to escape the Nazis. After travelling via Sweden, he arrived in Britain with just a cardboard box containing his meagre belongings and a couple of treasured family photographs. A card was slung around his neck with his name, Rudi Adolf Cohn, handwritten on it. He had left his parents and twin brothers behind in Germany, not knowing if he would ever see them again.
Rudi was naturalised in the UK in 1947 and changed his name to Roger Cummings. No one knew of the horrors he had witnessed – or of his miraculous escape.
In 1953, Roger married a talented designer and window dresser called Iris Cohen and they had four children together, including the novelist Karen Millie-James. “We were brought up Jewish but I knew nothing of Dad’s history,” Karen explains. “He told us that he was Swedish, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
“There were some clues to his background, however. Anything to do with Germany was a taboo subject. I bought a German radio once and Dad almost threw it out of the house.”
Tragically, Karen only found out about her father’s childhood after he died aged 39. “Dad was taken into hospital for a simple hernia operation and suffered a pulmonary thrombosis. This was 1967 and I was 12 at the time. Mum struggled to bring all four of us up on a paltry widow’s pension.”
After Roger died, his story began to unfurl when Karen and her family discovered letters and papers that he had written in German. They also stumbled upon an obituary in the
Jewish Chronicle, which said that he had come to Britain on the Kindertransport – a rescue effort to bring Jewish children from the Continent to safety in Britain, which saved the lives of more than 10,000 children.
“Dad was born on 29 August 1926, not in Sweden, but in Charlottenberg, Berlin, Germany, to Erich Alexander and Frieda Cohn. Erich owned a livestock business and bank commissioners. Roger’s grown-up twin brothers, Hans and Günther, stayed behind in Germany.”
Roger attended boarding school in Taplow and Hereford before being placed with a family in Birmingham. “Judging by letters Dad wrote, he was badly treated. His escape came by joining the Army in 1944 and he was transferred to the Welsh Fusiliers,” Karen says.
Roger joined the Intelligence Corps in March 1946 and was quickly promoted to sergeant. He was stationed in Belgium and ventured into Germany to help capture fugitive Nazis. This was work over and above that expected of his rank, and he was awarded the France and Germany Star.
For 16 years after the war, Roger exchanged letters with the United Restitution Office in London. “The authorities made it as hard as possible to claim compensation for the loss of the family business and home. Dad had to create exhaustive lists of household items, such as butter dishes, cutlery and bedding, from vague memories.
“Finally, in 1961, he was offered the sum of £1314.13s 2d. Incredibly, they also deducted commission and exchange handling charges.”
Fifteen years ago, Karen read in The Times that a Goodwill Fund had been established for further restitution, so she applied to the Court of Frankfurt. “It was shocking to receive every detail of Dad’s family, including the dates they were taken to the camps and when they were murdered. I felt as though I had lost Dad’s family all over again and went through a period of mourning.”
She learnt that Günther and his wife Susanne were deported to Kovno, Lithuania, on 17 November 1941, while Erich, Frieda and Hans were taken on to Auschwitz on 1 December 1943.
Despite the devastating turn in Roger’s childhood, he created a loving family home and did much to help others. For years he was chairman of the charity AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. “He led its procession at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day and I have photos of him marching in Whitehall, proudly displaying his medals.
“Dad continues to inspire me every day and I’m currently working on my second novel, which will be based on Holocaust survivors. Dad was my hero and I want to keep his story alive.” The little boy standing alone on the station platform in 1939 has left behind a powerful legacy of love.
We were brought up Jewish, but I knew nothing of Dad’s history. He told us he was Swedish