‘We thought we were going on an adventure’
In 1938, the first of the Jewish Kindertransport children evacuated from Nazi Germany arrived in Britain. Six of those refugees tell Stephen Moss about their escape – and the heartrending sacrifices of their parents
Friday is the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. The pogrom of 9 November 1938 in Nazi Germany demonstrated to the Jewish population that their lives were in urgent danger and they must leave if they could. But where to go? Other countries were reluctant to take refugees and adults were finding it increasingly difficult to get out, so Jewish organisations in Germany, Europe and the US attempted to rescue children, persuading governments to take child refugees on temporary visas.
Ten thousand came to the UK, on trains and boats organised by Jewish groups and other philanthropic organisations. This week, an exhibition opens at the Jewish Museum in London featuring the stories of six of the children who came to the UK from Germany as part of this rescue effort, which came to be known as the Kindertransport. The six are now in their 80s and 90s, and have made short films recounting their experiences.
I visited each of them in their homes and heard their remarkable, moving, often tragic testimonies. Some never saw their parents again; all suffered the pain of separation; some were so traumatised they couldn’t speak of what had happened to them for decades afterwards – not even to their children. But in each the light of defiance, humour and commitment to life shines through. And each now goes into schools to talk to young people about what they and their parents suffered, testifying both as an act of remembrance towards their parents and also as a warning to the next generation that intolerance, hatred and scapegoating of minorities are ever-present threats. sheltered him from the deteriorating conditions for Jews in the 1930s, but recalls seeing brownshirts – SA paramilitaries – parading in the streets and once caught sight of Adolf Hitler passing on a train.
On Kristallnacht, a cold November night, his family were marched down to the town square with other Jews while their burning synagogues lit up the sky around them. Koschland’s father was taken away to the concentration camp of Dachau, near Munich. He was released a few weeks later, and applied for places on the Kindertransport for his son and daughter, promising that he and his wife would join them as soon as possible. “A child takes a promise like that not just at face value, but at full value,” says Koschland.
His place on the Kindertransport was obtained with the help of Jewish organisation B’nai B’rith, and, aged eight, he left Fürth in March 1939, travelling to Hamburg and then taking a ship to Southampton – a picture of the ship, the SS Manhattan, which brought 80 refugee children to the UK, adorns the wall of his living room. The only English he knew was one sentence his parents had taught him: “I’m hungry; may I have a piece of bread?” His sister was allowed to travel soon afterwards, boarding with a family in south London, but did not see her brother
Bernd Koschland now and ( far left) in Germany on his first day at school