Bernd Koschland MBE was born in Germany in 1931. Shortly after the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis began Bernd travelled to England alone on the Kindertransport. Here Bernd recollects his experiences and how they have influenced his life.
He feels that it is important to share his experiences with people on Holocaust Memorial Day. Throughout his testimony Bernd uses the term Jewish ‘FTSE’ as a metaphor for his sense of Jewish identity.
How did I feel? I cannot recall. I was, however, brought up with a jolt a few years ago when speaking to young people at a Jewish school. A girl asked me if I was angry when it was decided to send me on the Kindertransport. I could not, and still cannot, answer that question.
I was born in Fuerth, near Nuremberg, Germany, in 1931 into an orthodox Jewish family. I lived through the growing severity of Nazi Persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, persecution which reached its height on the infamous Kristallnacht, ‘Night of the Broken Glass’, or ‘Night of the Pogrom’, as it is called in my hometown.
On that night my father and other men were taken to Dachau. Today on the wall of my study is a copy of a photograph of him standing in line with other prisoners in the concentration camp there; I was shaken to see this exact picture at the Holocaust memorial museum at Yad Vashem.
A while later, on my father’s release, my parents decided to send me to England on the Kindertransport. In March 1939 I travelled to the UK, and my older sister followed a couple of months later.
I will never understand how my parents must have felt when they made the decision to send the two of us away. The ‘promise’ that they would soon join us no doubt eased our way; but did it make it easier for them? In those days boys wore short trousers, so they also promised me a suit with long trousers for my Bar Mitzvah!
How did I feel? I cannot recall. I was, however, brought up with a jolt a few years ago when speaking to young people at a Jewish school. A girl asked me if I was angry when it was decided to send me on the Kindertransport. I could not, and still cannot, answer that question. Angry with whom? My parents? Myself? The Germans? All I can guess is that I must have been very upset; I would miss my parents, but I believed that they would join me soon.
I left my father and sister on the platform and travelled with my mother by train to Hamburg. There I and other Kinder (meaning ‘child’ in German, a term which we still use of each other) boarded the United States liner SS Manhattan en route to America and sailed for Southampton. My parents, whom I left behind, never did join us. They met their deaths in Riga or Izbica in 1942.
I was now one of the Kinder of the Kindertransport. After Kristallnacht, Quakers and other Christian groups, as well as Jewish groups and other individuals pressured the UK government to save children from Nazi Europe. After speeches in Parliament, the government agreed to allow children to come into the UK on the condition that they were under 17, unaccompanied by parents, had a guarantor for £50 and would eventually migrate further. The first Kindertransport arrived on 2 December 1938 from Vienna.
After arriving in Southampton in March 1939, I was taken to a boys’ hostel in Margate, where I was the youngest. My first task was to learn English to enable me to acclimatise to my new homeland. Additional methods were by learning to play hopscotch, collecting cigarette cards, seeing The Wizard of Oz and eventually starting school in October. Life in a hostel was no doubt strange for me as one of many children instead of being one of two children in my parental home. I also learned a few ‘useful?’ things, such as how to sew on a button, darn socks and dry up dishes. My Jewish ‘FTSE’ went down somewhat, although we had contact with the local Rabbi, which sent my ‘FTSE’ up a little.
The outbreak of war meant the end of communication with my parents, destroying their letters on the advice of an older boy, and carrying a gas mask and identity card. Being on the coast also meant that in 1940 I was evacuated, along with the rest of the school.
Eight of us Jewish lads were settled in a village in Staffordshire. Two of us lived with a wonderful non-Jewish family who had no children of their own. Their house had no electricity – lighting was by gas – and there was no inside loo or bathroom. They cared for us wonderfully but it was difficult to maintain Jewish life there. We did have some Jewish instruction on Shabbat in a nearby hall with other Jewish children in the area. My Jewish ‘FTSE’ went up a little!
The eight of us faced a serious problem: we stayed away from school on the first day of Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year. The master from the school in charge of evacuees called us together and threatened us that if we did not go to school the next day, life would be difficult for us. In the end we went to school, and missed the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
Fortunately in 1942 I was moved to an orthodox Jewish hostel in Tylers Green, near High Wycombe, where my Jewish ‘FTSE’ went up tremendously. Life was very pleasant for the 25 of us who lived there. At Grammar School we were freed from attending school on a Saturday. Apart from my memory, I have a good picture of life in Tylers Green, from the archives I was given relating to my hostel and a sister hostel. This is one of my most precious possessions, which is now kept at the Wiener Library.
After the war the hostel moved to London, and closed down around early 1948. I moved to stay with family until I took up my first position as a minister. I trained for this at the London School of Jewish Studies (where my ‘FTSE’ zoomed up and stayed to this day), but left my synagogue position to go into full-time teaching. I taught at the Jewish Free School and finally at the City of London School for Girls, from which I retired in 1995.
I often saw my sister until she joined the Army. She was married in the UK and moved to Canada in 1951. Unfortunately her husband, whom I knew through his visits to Tylers Green, died a couple of years ago. I was married in1957 and have a son and daughter. My wife died in 1996. My children married and I have six grandchildren, two of whom are married.
Here are my final thoughts as I reflect on my experiences. I tried to contact my parents via the Red Cross but by that time they were already dead. Did I, do I, miss them? Of course, especially and strangely in latter years, when I hear other people saying to parents, for instance: ‘Can we stay with you?’ ‘Will you come over to us?’ ‘Dad, how do I fix this?’
I believe strongly that despite the past, life must carry on, that you must do something useful with your life. Today, speaking about the Holocaust and the Kindertransport is part of the lives of many who survived. I believe that this is so important that memories of the Holocaust, and the Kindertransport, are passed on to the next generation and not forgotten.
Genocide still happens today, and its effects are felt by many. For those who survived Auschwitz, the Holocaust and for the Kinder who lost their families, the aftermath of the Holocaust is still with them. The aftermath is still with me. The Holocaust must never be forgotten.
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