Friday, 29 January 2016
Ernest Simon shares his story as a refugee child on the Kindertransport. (Full article published on The Guardian website here
)Ernest Simon, from Austria
Ernest Simon: 'I didn't know the implications.' Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian
Ernest Simon was eight years old when he boarded a Kindertransport train at Wien Westbahnhof station in Vienna. It was midnight on 11 January 1939, and he recalls just two things: a number around his neck, and saying goodbye to his parents and younger brother. "I didn't know the implications," he says. "I didn't think I might never see them again. You don't think like that when you are eight years old. For me, it was something of an adventure. All I knew was that I would be living with a nice Jewish family in England."
The Kindertransport had begun a month earlier, propelled by the brutality of Kristallnacht. By 14 May 1940, when the last transport left the embattled Netherlands for Britain, 10,000 unaccompanied children aged from three to 17 had made the two-day journey from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to a country that, for the vast majority, would become their home. Many of the parents and extended families they left behind were murdered by the Nazis. Few of the refugees went back after the war.
"I remember so little of the journey," says Simon. "I must have slept a lot. I remember being sea sick. At Liverpool Street station I was taken to a hostel overnight – something I did not discover until years later – and the next day to Leeds." Simon's aunt was already there. She had managed to get a domestic service visa and secure Simon's sponsors: a Jewish family in Chapeltown, Leeds. She also found a couple who were willing to employ his parents as domestic servants. So just six weeks after Simon arrived in Leeds, his parents and younger brother followed.
Ernest Simon as a child. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian
Why was he, and not his brother, chosen for the Kindertransport? "The truth is, I don't know," Simon says. "My brother jokes that they kept him back because they loved him more." He laughs, then becomes serious again. "The thing is, you don't ask these questions of your parents. It's very strange. I only know that it must have been very difficult for them."
When war broke out, Simon and his brother were evacuated to a village in Lincolnshire. "I lived with a farming family who didn't speak a word of German." How did he manage? "My English improved dramatically," he laughs, "and my German deteriorated to the extent that when my parents came to visit, my mother spoke to me in German and I replied in English. She burst into tears."
Simon is 85 now and lives in north-west London with his wife, whom he met at a dance in Leeds while on leave from the RAF. They have one son, who lives in Brussels. Simon studied economics at Leeds University and went on to work in business all over Europe. It is the UK, though, that remains home. "I feel entirely British," he says. "When I visit Austria, I'm a bit of a stranger. I've been back to Eisenstadt, where I was born, many times and often thought what might have happened if there had been no Kindertransport. It's a very difficult question to answer." Chitra RamaswamyHenry Wuga, from Germany
"White bread and red apples," recalls Henry Wuga, 91 and as sharp as a tack. "That's what I remember when the train crossed the Dutch frontier and we were received by ladies handing out chocolate and sandwiches. Being children, this was what you remembered. The minute someone was kind to you, you felt better."
Wuga was 15 on 4 May 1939 when he left Nuremberg on the Kindertransport, the name given to the evacuation of an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from Nazi Germany and the European countries it then occupied to Britain. He remembers howling on the platform, and carriages full of screaming children. "It was all right for me," he adds. "I had been away from home, but these kids were six and seven; they had never left their mums and dads."
By the age of 11 Wuga, the only child of Jewish parents who ran a small stationery business, was forced to leave his school. "No one would speak to us, neither the teachers nor the pupils," he tells me from the home in Giffnock, Glasgow, he shares with his wife Ingrid, who also left Germany on the Kindertransport. "We were completely sidelined. Songs were sung in the classroom while we were sitting there in tears. I don't forget this easily."
It was Wuga's mother, who survived the war hidden in a village and died in Glasgow at the age of 89, who got him a place on the Kindertransport. She had a cousin who had reached Glasgow and found him a sponsor: a Latvian widow with five older children. "I knew what was going on," Wuga explains. "It didn't come as a surprise to me to be at that train station, but I do remember saying to my parents: 'Why must I go on that train? Why can't I go via Paris and spend a week with my cousin?' I didn't quite realise that was not possible."
He arrived at Liverpool Street station in London, which "was a black hole in those days," he says. "We were sent to a cellar to wait to be collected. There were 200 of us, many had sponsors, others had no one. Some people had volunteered to take a child and came to the station to pick one. It was a bit of a cattle market ... quite traumatic." Wuga was taken to a hostel overnight and the following morning boarded another train, this time the Royal Scotsman from Euston. "We were taken to the dining car and I remember the waiters with white gloves serving hot chocolate in silver teapots. It was unbelievable to me. I will never forget it."
In Glasgow, Wuga's sponsor enrolled him in a local school and took him to concerts and the theatre. "I was nurtured," he says. "I was fortunate. I never had any problems being foreign, German or Jewish." However, his letters to his family were intercepted during the war and Wuga was accused of corresponding with the enemy. At the age of 16, he was sent to the high court in Edinburgh and convicted without a lawyer. "Within half an hour, I went from being a refugee due to religious persecution to a dangerous enemy alien," he says with a wry laugh. "It was quite a shock, but there was nothing I could do." Wuga ended up being interned on the Isle of Man for 10 months. "I was the youngest prisoner there," he says. Many of the interned Jews were academics and he went to lectures on medicine and philosophy and watched men playing chess with their backs to the board, calling out moves without looking. "We were self governing. There was a lot of music."
He returned to run a Jewish catering business in Glasgow with his wife. They have two daughters and four grandsons and Ingrid likes to joke that the one thing Hitler did was introduce her to Henry. How did they meet? "At a Jewish club I formed with other refugees on Sauchiehall Street," Wuga says. "We were highly leftwing, we wrote communist pamphlets and wanted to fight Hitler by any means." Neither of them ever wanted to return to Germany though. "A tiny percent went back to rebuild the country but it was never for me," Wuga says. "I always wanted to stay in Britain. I belong here. This is our country." CR