Leo Baeck 1


Oct 2001 Journal

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Profile: Fred Durst

Born in Munich in 1924, Manfred was the second child of a printer, Bernard Durst, who had migrated from Galicia, and his wife Paula who came from a very orthodox family. Part of the city’s 8,000-strong Jewish community, he and his sister Ilse, older by two years, lived in a kosher home, went to Synagogue and attended weekly Hebrew classes. Though the family were of modest means, they enjoyed a very happy childhood, but sadly, when he was just ten, his mother died.

At school the Jewish boys increasingly became targets for teacher-supported bullying, then in 1936 were expelled. He ended up in a Jewish school with his sister, but was deprived of his beloved skating and athletics. Throughout the summer of 1938 the lives of the Jews in Germany and Austria were becoming ever more precarious. Emigration was the prime topic of conversation as everyone was desperate to get away from the dominating physical presence of Hitler and the mob-mania which accompanied his frequent public appearances. In June 1938 Munich’s beautiful main synagogue was demolished

As Bernard Durst was still officially a Polish citizen, despite having fought for Austria-Hungary in World War I, in October 1938 he and his children were woken by banging on their door at 2 a.m. and given little time before being taken to prison for two days and then put on a train for Poland. Within 20 miles of the border the train was turned around, as the Poles were busy expelling their German-born Jews, so the Dursts avoided the statelessness and cruel fate of many others.

After Munich’s remaining synagogue was burnt down on Kristallnacht, Bernard decided that the Kindertransport to Britain was his children’s only hope. So early in the morning of 3 January 1939, Fred and Ilse boarded a train to Frankfurt, part of a group of five to six hundred children en route to the Hook of Holland, and then sailed to Harwich. In the bitter cold of winter, frightened, disoriented and exhausted, the children were housed in the chalets of the misleadingly named Dovercourt holiday camp.

Fred made the best of his time at Dovercourt, getting used to England and the English; the hour or two every day spent learning English proved particularly valuable. Sundays were occupied with the children being paraded for inspection by prospective foster parents which, for the older girls, could well mean unpaid domestic service, as it did for Ilse.

When Dovercourt reverted to its original use in March 1939, Fred was sent to a hostel in North Kensington for 40 boys between the ages of 14 and 16, supervised by two local synagogues. St Marks Road Hostel was strictly observant and local fascists lost no opportunity to paint swastikas on the doors and demonstrate their violent antisemitism. Fred befriended an orthodox boy, Isaak ‘John’ Najmann from Breslau, who was to become a life-long friend and business partner, and attended a local Jewish school. When he learned that his father had reached Shanghai he wrote every week.

With the outbreak of war came evacuation to a village in Wiltshire, where the villagers had little or no understanding of either Jews or kashrut. Fred worked on his host family’s allotment, fed the chickens and joined the local scout group.

Sent back to St Marks Road following his 16th birthday, during the Blitzkrieg on London, Fred - together with John - began a five-year jewellery apprenticeship in Hatton Garden. As a profitable sideline, the boys made bracelets out of silver three-penny bits. By 1944 Fred’s employers were making bomb-sights and automatic pilots, yet he continued his classes in the design and manufacture of jewellery and set up a workshop with John in the Portobello Road – while still carrying on the day job. That year he also learned of his father’s death.

After the war the boys set up their own business together and worked extremely hard to develop the largest manufacturing jewellers in Britain with factories in London and Birmingham. Fred became a lecturer in design and business management and served for fifteen years as a member of the British Hallmarking Council. In 1977 he received the Freedom of the City of London and was made a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. In 1980 he was Chairman of the British Jewellery Association.

In 1951 Fred married Marion, also from Munich. Settling in north London, they had a son, Michael, and kept in touch with fellow refugees and survivors through the Jewish clubs and societies in the Swiss Cottage area. Both he and Marion remain active members of the New London Synagogue and have developed a close interest in supporting the security and welfare of Israel.

After retiring from the jewellery business in 1988, Fred became increasingly active in the AJR as a member of its Management Committee and still chairs the Leo Baeck House Committee in the Bishop’s Avenue. Golf is his favourite relaxation. Despite having showed outstanding courage, resolution and resourcefulness, Fred claims to have led a charmed life.

The author thanks Fred Durst for access to the manuscript of Shirley Toulson’s book ‘On Strange Ground’.
Ronald Channing

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