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Apr 2002 Journal

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‘Playing the game’ (profile)

Sigi Faith, born Siegfried Samuel Feitlowitz in Hamburg in 1928, was brought up an only child in the well-protected environment of a comfortable home, yet surprisingly he suffered few qualms when joining the Kindertransport for England in December 1938.

After experiencing a number of refugee camps, in May the following year Sigi found himself, together with 700 other refugee boys, living in a disused Victorian workhouse in Claydon, near Ipswich. Though a diet of hard-boiled eggs and fish cakes proved monotonous, he was free to roam the countryside, build a make-shift raft on the river and show his athletic prowess at organised sports. Barham House was a transit camp for boys waiting to be placed with families in all parts of the country. A list of names would appear on the dining hall notice board every day and the fate of those concerned decided.

On 3 October 1939 Sigi’s name was posted. It meant gathering together his few belongings and being escorted to London with another boy, then changing trains for the market town of Oswestry on the Welsh borders. A taxi took the boys “into the middle of nowhere”, Sigi recalls, stopping en route outside a row of modest farm cottages where his companion was led inside by a farm labourer. The taxi then progressed through the town, halting at the gates of a substantial Victorian house. The house was that of the headmaster of Oswestry public school, founded in 1407.

Although he hardly spoke a word of English, and everyone knew that he was Jewish, antisemitism proved non-existent. The strict daily routine varied only on Sundays, which meant putting on your Sunday best and going to chapel – twice. It was Sigi’s good fortune that sport was apparently considered more important than academic studies, but it took him five years to eradicate the memory of his early attempts at cricket when he was appointed cricket and house captain and, in 1944, head boy. Alas, when the other boarders wrote home, Sigi only wrote thank you letters to the parents of boys who had invited him to stay.

When he was 12 Sigi had a visit from a representative of the Jewish Refugee Committee who explained about preparing for his Barmitzvah and said that, as there were no other Jews within miles of Oswestry, he should take a correspondence course and return his work to the rabbi by post. But when he began to do the homework, it was brought to the attention of the headmaster, who decided that he must conform to the standard routine.

Sigi left school in September 1945, but lack of funds prevented him from going on to take medical studies. Keen to retain his independence, he chose to accept the sound advice proffered by the Refugee Committee in Birmingham and settled into an accountancy firm there for the next five years. With bed and board at 27/6d, but payment of a junior articled clerk at only 25/-, he needed to sell his meagre allocation of clothing coupons to make up the missing 2/6d. He remembers that most of the refugee boys were pretty hard up.

In 1948 his parents arrived in England, having managed to find shelter in Shanghai for the duration of the war following his father’s release from concentration camp; he had not seen or been in contact with his parents for ten years. After qualifying as an accountant, Sigi settled in London and later went into business with his father, exporting woollen textiles, carrying on the business alone when his father died in 1960. In 1964 he opened his first shoe shop in Wood Green, north London, and Faith Shoes have since been developed into a national brand which today has 340 branches in the UK and 25 overseas, with a staff of 2,200. Sigi still goes to his office every working day.

Though saddened by what happened to him and his family, Sigi regards himself as extremely fortunate in the way his life has turned out. In 1951 he met and married his charming wife Terry, an opportunity he nearly missed by turning up at the wrong venue! They have a son, a daughter and six grandchildren and celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year with a world cruise. Many classmates from over 60 years ago are still among his best friends. A member of AJR’s Management Committee, a keen supporter of the Kindertransport and member of the KT-AJR planning committee, he, with his wife, regularly attend functions at the Day Centre. In a personal capacity he was recently elected to the council of the Wiener Library.

Sigi feels very English and not at all German. “I have adopted a different country”, he reflects, “and I am certainly more at home in an English environment than any other.” Yet, to this day he must wonder which direction his life would have taken if he had been the boy who stopped off at that cottage all those years ago.
Ronald Channing

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