When my Grandpa was a little boy all his parents’ wanted for him was a safe place for him to grow up and get his education. They were living in Russia and as Jews they had been horribly racially abused and persecuted pogroms. Germany between WW1 and WW2 was being run by a liberal government called Weimar and my Great-Grandparents decided that they would live a better life in this artistic and prosperous country.
After Hitler came to power, through manipulating this democracy of Weimar, he stirred up anger against the harsh terms imposed on Germany at the end of WW1 and misery caused by economic crisis. He directed this rage against the Jewish people using them as a scapegoat. Every problem the government should solve, like unemployment, he would claim was the fault of the Jews, saying for example they were stealing all the work. He began by using horrible words about people like my Great Grandmother, Manya, saying they were hoarding money, were like rats, they were stealing work from honest German people. These things were so unfair: my family were just trying to work and contribute just like everyone else. My grandpa was still a young boy but he must have heard the way people spoke about those of his race and religion, calling them dogs, rats, thieves and spongers.
Hitler and his political party began to institutional racism, to use government policy to encourage and legalise anti-Semitism. I don’t know if my Grandpa, a little boy, was force to wear a yellow star to mark him out as different from the other children. I don’t know if he was spat at in the street, forced to cut a grass lawn with his teeth, had his windows smashed and his house spray painted, but these things did happen to other families before the Holocaust started.
My Grandpa must have been terrified, confused as to why people were being so unkind to him. My Great-Grandfather was a prosperous merchant but he was gradually losing work. His business contracts dried up and he found the law wouldn’t let him recover debts from bad creditors; found the law wasn’t equally applied to all German people. He used to play chess with the local Nazi commandant; they were friends of the same education level, the same class and spoke the same language. His Judaism didn’t come between them, but as other Jewish families started disappearing from the area it became clear that their names were somehow being left off lists. Protection from persecution through this friendship only lasted so long. One night over a final game of chess the commandant told my Great Grandfather that if he wanted his family to survive it was finally time to leave Germany. This was just before the devastating Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, where violence against Jews and Jewish houses raged across Germany, where racist energy reached a fever pitched. Windows were smashed and houses and business torched.
It was not easy to emigrate in that period; many countries also shared some of the anti-Jewish racism that Germany had. The UK, too, which we hope would not indulge in awful racism, was against Jewish immigrants. There were some people who were trying to help the Jews, especially British Jewish and Quaker leaders who appealed in person to the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. He agreed to arrange special trains to help Jewish children flee from the Nazis. No one knew then what Germany would do with their Jewish people. No one knew that soon they would begin creating the Concentration camps; a production line of murder to systematically destroy people like my Grandpa. But it was already clear that being a Jewish child in Germany was not safe so these wonderful people organised trains called Kindertransport. Some 10,000 children fled on these trains.
My Grandpa was one of the lucky few to get a place on this train and arrived in the UK safely. He was about 15 years old, old enough to look like a man grown though still a scared little boy in his heart. He lstayed with a British family for a year or so. He must have missed his parents terribly who were still in Germany and desperately trying to find passage out.
Manya must have thought of her son, living in another country in the power of foreign foster parents who didn’t speak his language. She must have been terrified too for herself and her husband. They couldn’t sell the factory or house and take the money to start a new life. They simply took what cash they could, packed her jewellery and some clothes and took a boat to Italy. From there they were hoping to find passage out of Europe which was rapidly threatening to descend into a war-zone. They found a boat willing to take them to the USA. On the dock as they waited a man came up and took their bags from them. They shouted, cried out against the robbery, but the in the chaos of impending war two scared Jews with nothing in the world but the clothes they stood up in and the bags at their feet were easily ignored, were easy prey.
Left with nothing, except her wedding ring that she had hidden in her underwear, Manya left Europe behind and tried to start again in America. Back in Europe war had finally broken out. Suddenly my Grandpa was no longer just a Jewish Immigrant, he was a GERMAN immigrant. No one knew that the Holocaust was beginning in Germany and Poland so to British people my Grandpa just looked and spoke like the Enemy. As always in times of war and stress, people started to demonize those of different races or those who speak different languages. To control any possibility of spying many German immigrants were taken to the Isle of Wight where they were placed in an internment camp. My Grandpa, though only 16, was old enough to be treated as a man. To have escaped imprisonment in Germany because of his Jewishness, to have run across Europe to the safe haven of England, only to then be placed in prison in for being German must have made him furious. I can only imagine his helpless fury at this sick irony while he sat behind those barbed wire fences.
Despite this unhappiness my Grandpa was one of the lucky ones. Back in Germany many members of my family who didn’t get a chance to immigrate and were rounded up into ghetto towns. Here they starved to death, were beaten to death or died of illness in cramped hovels. As the war progressed these ghettos were emptied by soldiers who transported the people to camps to begin killing them, tens or twenties at a time in gas chambers. When they had no gas they would be taken into the woods, forced to dig their own graves and shot, one after one in lines. My poor great aunts and uncles, my poor cousins. People whose faces look like my face, people who I see in the few photographs we have left. Hundreds of people and all of the children they might have had, all of the lives they could have lived, are gone, wiped out because of sickening racism stoked and encouraged by a government.
As someone with a Jewish Grandpa, I would be murdered by people like the Nazis today. I always think of that when I here about people like Donald Trump who say they want to create lists of Muslims in America to keep an eye on them, or when I see Neo Nazis marching in the streets of Britain. For the toss of a coin what happened in Germany could have happened here, could still happen here if we don’t remain vigilant and compassionate.
My Grandpa came home after internment and went to work in a button factory. In a wartime whirlwind romance he married my Grandma, a nice Methodist girl from Kettering, to whom he must have seemed so exotic; he was a handsome man with thick black hair and a wry smile. The marriage didn’t last long after the war but they had two daughters. One, my auntie, went to America to live with Manya and her decedents. I have what seems like hundreds of cousins and second cousins in America now, living happily. It is sad to me that our family has been spread so far across the world but I'm glad that my Grandpa chose to stay in England. He loved England, though he spoke with a thick Germany accent all his life. He loved the traditions of England, especially our hierarchies. I think he wanted to create a feeling of security by integrating himself in the class system. I never forget the day when my Mum became a Church of England vicar and he was so excited because he got to meet a Bishop. He left his Judaism behind somewhat; I think he never believed very deeply. I know some Jews were so furious with God for allowing (an estimated) two thirds of their number to be slaughtered that they repudiated their faith. They felt like spitting in the face of God who would say He loved them yet allow such despicable horror to be visited upon them. Some wanted to believe even more; they wanted to preserve their religion and culture in the teeth of those who sought to destroy them. That is how we win, they thought, we will never go away.
My Grandpa came back to his faith a little in the end. He remarried a Jewish lady who had emigrated from Austria just before the war. He kept the house Kosher for her, though he would always take me for Pork dumplings at the local Chinese. They had a happy life together, visiting the loveliest cities of Europe, going to the opera and art galleries, eating at the best restaurants. My Grandpa loved Europe, just like I do. It is a place full of incredible art, great food and warm people. He never went back to Germany though. He always said he would like to visit Karlsruhe again, the industrial city of his boyhood, but in the end he never booked the flights. He never visited Israel either which he always hoped to do. He wanted to see the Holocaust records the Museum of Yad Vashem keeps to look for friends of his childhood and his aunts and uncles who never made it out.
I’ll always feel grateful to England that they took my Grandpa in. Though he was a German I am English and I like that. I feel proud to be English, never more so when I hear about us accepting migrants from war-torn places like Syria, especially the children, and proud of the Eastern Europeans who get a second chance here, just like my Grandpa had.
This Holocaust day if you feel moved by this story please think about how many other people have stories just like this, how many children in Calais, Berlin, Athens, Aleppo, need a train to take them to safety, a family to foster them and a country to welcome them. I think England can be that country again and I hope you do too.