Sep 2011 Journal

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A Kindertransport memoir

Daisy Roessler-Rubin sadly passed away in March this year in Ra’anana, Israel, shortly after she had completed this article (Ed.).

On 5 June 1939 I left Berlin on a Kindertransport. Only two adults were allowed to see us off and we had to say our goodbyes in a special waiting room. The scene remains in my memory to this very day.

Everyone in tears, little children grasping their mothers’ skirts not understanding what was going on, older ones trying to keep a stiff upper lip and to be brave.

I was 12 years old and was asked to look after a little girl called Lisa. The volunteers who were to accompany us to England asked most of us ‘older ones’ to assist with the younger travellers, some of whom were only four years old!

When the time came to leave, we all trooped outside and waiting on the platform were police and SA men. They actually helped us on to the train and a few policemen called out ‘Gute Reise!’

We had identification cards around our necks with our name and destination and we were allowed one medium-sized suitcase and a small bag.

The train started to move and there we sat, hugging our treasures – dolls, teddy bears, photos, etc. Now and then policemen entered the compartment to search us and our luggage.

This happened three or four times until we reached the Dutch border. There the train stopped and we were searched for the last time. We crossed the border, stopped again and we were free!

There were lots of people waiting there. They shouted ‘Welcome’ and handed us food and drinks as well as toys for the younger children. Then on to Hoek van Holland for the next phase of our long, long journey.

Most of us had never seen the sea before, so our misery was somewhat alleviated by the view. We boarded the ferry, were assigned our berths, served a warm meal, and off we went to sleep after a long, sad and eventful day.

On the morning of 6 June we disembarked and stepped on to British soil. It was a lovely day. While our luggage was taken into a large hangar and assembled in alphabetical order, we sat outside on the lush green grass. Once our cases were identified, we boarded a train which took us to Liverpool Street Station. Our volunteers took us across the road into a large hall and sorted us out with regard to where and to whom we would be sent.

A new identification card with name and destination was placed around my neck. I was put in charge of two smaller girls, and we were each handed a ten-shilling note. It was a lot of money in those days – about a fifth of a working man’s weekly wage.

We then boarded another train at King’s Cross Station, which, I was later told, was the renowned Flying Scotsman. We were put under the charge of the guard, who sat us down in the dining car. When he explained who we were to the other passengers it was the first time I had heard the word ‘refugee’.

The two girls soon nodded off, leaning on my shoulders. Everyone smiled at us and ordered food and drink for us. I knew no English, so all I could do was smile back.

Our destination turned out to be Newcastle, where we were met by two ladies. We were driven to Sunderland and reached what was to be our new home: No. 2 Kensington Esplanade, a four-storey, double-fronted upper-middle-class Victorian mansion.

Miss Schlüssel the matron, Miss Rosenberg the cook, Rose and Maud the maids waited to receive us and show us to our rooms. After we had had a bath and a snack, they sent us straight to bed.

Next morning, Regina, the oldest, showed us round the house. We were divided into three groups: little ones, middle ones and big ones – 27 in all.

The house had three large reception rooms, a butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s sitting-room with a coal-fired Aga oven and pulleys overhead to dry the laundry and dressers along one wall for plates, cups, bowls, etc. Next door there was a kitchen with sinks, gas cooker, a long wooden table and saucepans, frying pans and other utensils hanging on one wall.

Then there was a back door that led on to a yard with two low buildings. One had once been a stable but now housed a fire engine, while the other was a laundry room with a low, coal-fired oven, on top of which was a huge cauldron for boiling soiled clothes, a table and a mangle. We would help the laundry women fold the washing.

Inside the house there were three floors with four bedrooms on each. The biggest, on the first floor, had been converted into a bathroom with four washbasins and three bath cubicles.

We were mostly six girls to a room with each girl having separate cupboard space. The beds, bed linen and towels were all brand new.

On the next floor, two rooms were bedrooms for the girls, a third was fitted out as a sick bay, and the fourth was Matron’s room. The rooms above were for the cook, the maids and bathrooms.

Downstairs, the largest room was our play and sitting room. As usual in those old houses, there was just one small coal fireplace. It was always cold – even in the summer. Next door was our dining room, with matron’s office opposite. Anyone who has seen the television programme Upstairs, Downstairs would be able to visualise our new home.

At first, all but the youngest girls went to the local schools, but left after two weeks as the committee decided that the priority should be English lessons.

They hired a most wonderful, delightful and kind retired teacher – Miss Robinson, who came each day. The older girls learned in the mornings and the rest in the afternoons. She looked and dressed like Mary Poppins, as traditional British nannies used to dress. She really cared for us. Every girl received a photo album for her birthday with a loving greeting on the front page.

The postman’s arrival was an eagerly awaited event. He would arrive waving a handful of letters from afar.

The summer of 1939 was hot and sunny. We went to the beach crocodile fashion - two by two. People would stop us with good wishes, money for ice cream and even cinema tickets. I remember seeing The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin.

Sunderland had two synagogues – Rabbi Rabinowitz was the minister of the Federation and Rabbi Toporoff of the United. On Shabbat we alternated between the two and small groups of girls would be invited for tea by some of the congregants. Rabbi Toporoff always conducted the seder for us.

We were looked after by the Jewish doctors and dentists, received clothes and shoes from the local shopkeepers, and were treated well by all.

But then came the big change! It was at 12 midday, Sunday 3 September 1939 that matron asked us to assemble in the playroom, sit quietly on the floor, and listen.

I remember Mr Chamberlain declaring war without understanding most of his speech. Immediately afterwards, the air raid siren wailed for the first time. We took our gas masks off our numbered towel hooks and, together with our most valued possessions, proceeded down into the cellar, which served as an air raid shelter.

The cellar consisted of three parts – coal, general storage and wine. We sat on the side of the empty wine shelves clutching our bags. After the ‘all clear’ we climbed out again.

As the war progressed, the air raid wardens came to check on us. Our building was at the entrance of an underground railway tunnel and was always one of the main targets.

Gradually everything changed. At first, letters would still arrive, but then they got less and less until they stopped altogether. Most of the girls never saw their families again. I was one of the lucky ones.

Windows were blacked out, food and clothing coupons were introduced, and we had to go to the shelter night after night.

After each air raid houses were destroyed and people were killed and injured. The beaches were closed off with barbed wire and many of the local children were evacuated to safer locations.

The Refugee Hostel for Girls in Sunderland was one of the best in the United Kingdom. We were never short of anything, but food and clothes became scarcer as the war carried on.

A few of us ‘girls’, now scattered world-wide, are still regularly in contact, and always remember the kindness and care we received from the Sunderland Jewish Community.

Daisy Roessler-Rubin

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