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'Hitler was so evil we had to do our little bit to help'

When Jewish kids fled Nazis, UK families took them in. Now they share their stories

British nation had tight-fisted attitude toward Kindertransport refugees, but many regular Brits opened their doors. Foster siblings are giving testimonies never recorded before

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

  • Polish Jewish children arrive in London in February 1939. (Bundesarchiv Bild)
    Polish Jewish children arrive in London in February 1939. (Bundesarchiv Bild)
  • Hansi, Leo and Suzanne Spitzer before World War II. (Courtesy of Ann Chadwick)
    Hansi, Leo and Suzanne Spitzer before World War II. (Courtesy of Ann Chadwick)
  • Young refugees on their arrival at Harwich (Essex) in the early morning of 2 December 1938 / Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0928-501 Wikimedia Commons
    Young refugees on their arrival at Harwich (Essex) in the early morning of 2 December 1938 / Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0928-501 Wikimedia Commons
  • The Children of the Kindertransport sculpture, outside Liverpool Street Station in London (John Chase, 2006)
    The Children of the Kindertransport sculpture, outside Liverpool Street Station in London (John Chase, 2006)
  • 'Kindertransport' following Kristallnacht, when faith-based organizations in the UK lobbied for the entry of Jewish children as refugees. (public domain)
    'Kindertransport' following Kristallnacht, when faith-based organizations in the UK lobbied for the entry of Jewish children as refugees. (public domain)

LONDON — Ann Chadwick’s father remembered hearing Suzanne Spitzer quietly sobbing in her bedroom, crying “Mutter, mutter” (“Mother, mother”).

The five-year-old had just arrived at the Chadwick family’s Cambridge home on the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia — one of the 10,000 Jewish refugee children who escaped the Nazis and were taken in by Britain on the eve of World War II.

Suzie, who never saw her parents again after they put her on the train at Prague’s main railway station, spoke no English. The Chadwicks — two-year-old Ann and her parents, Winifred and Aubrey — spoke no German. Ann, however, soon picked up some German. “I can remember Suzie saying, ‘Ich weiß nicht’ — I don’t understand’ — so I sort of grew up with that sound in my ears,” she told The Times of Israel.

Chadwick’s recollections of the 11 years Suzie spent with her family are part of a new project undertaken by historian and Holocaust educator Mike Levy. Funded by the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, he is interviewing British families who gave a home to Kindertransport children.

Their experiences, says Levy, have hitherto been “neglected in the historiography of the Kindertransport.”

“Rightly so — people have been very keen to capture as many memories as they could of the kids themselves,” he says. However, the testimonies of the British foster families have gone largely unrecorded. While it is now likely too late to interview the parents, Levy is attempting to reach out to foster siblings like Chadwick. An appeal carried by the Sunday Times newspaper in December saw about 200 responses, with around 15-20 foster siblings so far scheduled to be interviewed.

Levy, whose new book, “Get The Children Out: Unsung Heroes of the Kindertransport,” was recently published, describes the UK response to the arrival of thousands of Jewish child refugees as a “massive nationwide effort.” The majority of Kindertransport children are thought to have been placed with families, although some found themselves housed in small hostels or boarding schools. Of those who went to live with families, it is estimated that around 25 percent were given a home by British Jews, mainly in the UK’s major cities such as London, Glasgow and Manchester.

But the outbreak of war in September 1939 saw a mass evacuation of children from the urban areas of the country most likely to suffer German air raids. Like British children, writes Levy, “young German-speaking refugees were billeted with families in deepest central Wales, the glens of Highland Scotland, or moorlands of Devon and the craggy coastline of Cornwall.” By the time war was declared at least 200 local refugee committees had sprung up across the UK. “Few areas of the country had nothing to do with Jewish refugees,” he says.

Kindertransport host and foster sibling, Ann Chadwick. (Courtesy)

The generosity of the public contrasted sharply with the tight-fisted attitude of their government. Throughout the interwar period, Britain had adopted a closed-door immigration and refugee policy, a stance which even the growing plight of German and Austrian Jews did little to affect. Indeed, the government’s reaction to the Anschluss in March 1938 was to tighten visa restrictions on those attempting to come into Britain from the German Reich.

However, public horror at the events of Kristallnacht saw the door eased slightly ajar, with the government agreeing to temporarily admit unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of 17 on the proviso that the rescue effort did not fall upon the public purse.

Chadwick believes that her parents — both teachers in their early 20s — decided to offer their home after hearing a radio appeal by the former Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin in early 1939.

“My mum, I’m sure, was the instigator,” recalls Chadwick. “She was the sort of person who would immediately say, ‘Well, why not?’” Nonetheless, she thinks her parents probably had little knowledge of what would be involved. Chadwick notes that the £50 guarantee families were required to pay to the state was a considerable sum given that her father’s salary was only £4 a week.

The Chadwick family, Ann, far left and Suzanne Spitzer, far right. (Courtesy of Ann Chadwick)

“And the British government’s still got it,” she jokes.

The British foster families were diverse in their nature, says Levy. Some were very wealthy. Viscount Traprain, whose uncle, former prime minister Arthur Balfour, had famously committed Britain to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1917, offered his large country estate outside Edinburgh as a farm school for 160 Kindertransport children. In London, Alan Sainsbury, the head of the popular grocery business which remains a household name in Britain, rented a house close to Wimbledon Common, which provided a home for at least 22 Jewish boys and girls.

But other families were working-class and of much more limited means. The need for a spare bedroom meant that the majority, Levy believes, were probably lower-middle-class, ranging from teachers, civil servants and local authority workers to postmen and carpenters. From early 1940, the foster families were able to receive a small state benefit from the government as part of the wider support given to those taking in evacuated children.

Although foster siblings aren’t always able to shed light on exactly why their parents opened their home to a refugee child, surviving records provide some insights, says Levy. The public campaign waged through radio, cinema and the newspapers was, by the standards of the day, significant. After Kristallnacht, “there was a sense that Hitlerism was so evil that ‘we could do our little bit to alleviate the suffering,’” he notes.

The Quakers and those involved in anti-fascist and left-wing politics also played an important role in housing refugees, building on a smaller-scale evacuation of 4,000 children from the Basque Country during the Spanish Civil War. And, adds Levy, a big section of the population was simply motivated by apolitical “altruism” towards endangered children.

Of course, the motivations of some of those who took in children were more suspect. Some missionary Christians saw an opportunity to convert Jews. There was an explicit prohibition on using the children as unpaid labor and a requirement that they should continue their education. But some upper-middle-class families undoubtedly saw providing a home to an older Jewish teenage girl as an opportunity to get a domestic servant, of which there was a shortage, on the cheap.

Young refugees on their arrival at Harwich (Essex) in the early morning of 2 December 1938 (Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0928-501 Wikimedia Commons)

The speed with which the Kindertransport effort was put in place, and the fact that most of those involved in local refugee committees were volunteers, meant that the process for recruiting foster families could be haphazard. Moreover, says Levy, the further away from a local refugee committee a child was placed, the weaker the inspection regime seems to have been and the more likely they were to be exploited.

He cites the example of Lore Michel, whose foster family in Devon made her work long hours as an unpaid servant and failed to send her to school. Ultimately, Michel turned out to be lucky: her brother, a student at Cambridge University, was able to raise the alarm and the case was taken up by Sybil Hutton, an active and indefatigable member of the city’s refugee committee. Michel eventually came to live with Hutton and her husband, an academic at the university. She later remembered the couple as “kind, generous and a wonderful replacement for my parents who were caught in Holland on their way to the USA and sadly sent to Bergen Belsen.”

Certainly, not all placements were successful or long-lasting. Some foster families bridled at refugee children who they viewed as “ungrateful” or badly behaved (which, Levy notes, could be as trivial as answering back). Sometimes children had to be rehoused due to a change in the foster families’ circumstances, including the birth of a new baby, financial difficulties or, once war began, the death of a father in action.

Holocaust historian and educator Mike Levy is collecting Kindertransport testimonies for a new project. (Courtesy)

But while it is difficult to quantify numbers precisely, writes Levy, “the surviving records do suggest that by and large, most children fared well with foster parents who did their best in very trying wartime circumstances.”

That was certainly the case for Suzie Spitzer. Chadwick recalls that both she and Suzie were their parents’ only children, and “pretty independent and not used to having another child around.” Her parents, however, quickly sought to ease any potential tensions.

“I can remember initially being cross with Suzie for pinching my dolls… but my parents soon put a stop to that. We’ve got pictures [taken about] six months after Suzie’s arrival where there were two dolls prams and two little tables in the garden with small chairs and dad had very quickly knocked up some belongings that were identical to mine which were there for Sue. They both made certain that there wasn’t going to be jealousy creeping in.”

As the girls reached school age, they used to “fight like tigers,” says Chadwick. “Suzie had beautiful, dark curly hair and I had long plaits. Both of which were very good for pulling,” she jokes. “But we were also very good friends.”

For a time, too, the Chadwicks remained in close touch with Suzie’s parents, Hansi and Leo. One letter from Leo to his daughter said: “I am delighted that you are learning English but don’t forget your German because, when we meet, I won’t understand what you’re saying.” However, the war meant that correspondence became increasingly difficult. Chadwick’s research has uncovered that Hansi was still alive in July 1942, but after that, the trail goes cold. Leo, who fought for the Free French, is known to have been at the infamous Drancy internment camp, most of whose remaining prisoners were deported to Auschwitz in the months leading up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944.

After the war, Suzie, much to the distress of the Chadwicks who had no legal claim on her, was sent to live in Argentina with an uncle and aunt. The experience was an unhappy one for the 16-year-old. Chadwick has correspondence from Suzie addressed to “dearest mummy” saying she wished she could come home, “just for the weekend.” Another letter from her father tells Suzie: “There is always a home for you here.” Thanks to money raised by the local refugee committee in the UK, Suzie — who had refused to be adopted by her uncle and aunt — was able to return to Britain in 1953.

Hansi, Leo and Suzanne Spitzer before World War II. (Courtesy of Ann Chadwick)

Chadwick says she and Suzie, who died in 1973, became “exceptionally good friends.” The pair went on holiday together and, for a time, they shared a flat and worked in the same hospital. “We never differentiated from the fact that Suzie came from a different family,” she recalls. “She was just always part of our family… I miss her terribly, even now.”

Levy says that although his research is only at an early stage, he has already been surprised by the level of impact the Kindertransport experience had on British foster families.

“Either it was a lifelong friendship that was created or a real sense that, as one [foster sibling] put it, ‘she became my sister,'” he says.

Even where people have said they lost track of the refugee child who stayed with their families — perhaps because they went to the United States or Israel after the war — relationships did not entirely fray. Siblings made efforts to find one another and decades later they got in touch again.

“Although, in some cases, it might have only been quite a short relationship — maybe just a few months — it seems somehow to have had a very long-lasting impact on the family. There was definitely emotional engagement in there,” Levy says.

The Children of the Kindertransport sculpture, outside Liverpool Street Station in London (John Chase, 2006)

Chadwick agrees. She has published a book about Suzie’s story and says the arrival of the young Jewish child in her family over eight decades ago changed her life.

“It was a huge privilege that we had her,” she says. Chadwick says her research after Suzie’s death “drew me very closely into the Jewish world” and into Holocaust education work.

“It’s added to my life experience and I’m very, very grateful for it,” she says.

Chadwick now visits schools talking about the Kindertransport and is involved with the establishment of a new project in Harwich, a port in the south of England where boats carrying the first arrivals from the continent docked.

Chadwick believes her work reflects a duty to a couple she never met, but whose daughter became her sister.

“I feel a responsibility to Suzie’s parents to find out what I can contribute not only from my experience, but to tell their story,” she says. “It’s all I can do for them now.”

If your family took in Kindertransport children, please contact Mike Levy at kindertransport4@gmail.com

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