Martin Kapel

Martin Kapel

In this podcast Kindertransportee Martin Kapel describes how his family was forced into Poland from Germany by the Nazis, and his journey on the Kindertransport by ship from Poland to England.


[Duration 50:48]

My parents were both of Polish families, my Father was born in Poland, my Mother’s family had emigrated from Poland to Germany but remained Polish citizens and my Father himself as a young man emigrated from Poland to Germany. It was there that my parents met and after their marriage they settled in Germany but they were Polish citizens so although I was born in Leipzig I was legally a Polish citizen. This was before the Nazis came to power; they came to power when I was a very small boy and so my earliest memories are those of living in Germany under the Nazis. For a number of years there were various restrictions that made life difficult but the Nazis had not reached the full horror of their regime in so far as it touched most of us. When I went to school at the age of six, which is the normal school starting age for the continent my Father had died by this time but I still had my Mother there was quite a lot of bullying because I was Jewish. The boys after all were being indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda. I was not actively ill treated by my teacher although he had to teach Nazi propaganda in addition to the normal educational material. This went on for two years and then all Jews were informed that Jewish children could no longer go to non-Jewish schools.

I had to leave my school and go to a Jewish school that was in another part of the town. It had existed already and the reason I had not attended it was that it was far away from where I lived but now it had to take children from all over the city. It was very overcrowded and there was a spirit of anxiety amongst the pupils and the teachers, we all knew that things were going to get worse and we all had evil forebodings as to dreadful things that were likely to happen. No-one knew actually what would happen but some dreadful things of course were already happening, there were people being put into concentration camps and so on. We all had this feeling that it was only a question of time before something of the sort happened to the rest of us. It was a very anxious sort of atmosphere that pervaded the whole school and in the six months I was at that school I learnt very little simply because of that and because of the overcrowding and the general lack of amenities of a school that had suddenly had to take a larger number of pupils.

When I had been there for about six months I acquired one of these slight illnesses that children tend to pick up at school, a sore throat, that sort of thing and I was away for a few days. Whilst I was away for these few days very early one morning we were all lying in our beds and the Nazis came and told us that we were all being taken away, my own family and also another family to whom we sublet part of our flat to after my Father’s death. They were also Polish Jews. We were not told officially where we were going but for the moment we were taken to a local Police station just a few streets away and we waited there not knowing quite what was going to happen. A bus came along, it already had some people whom it had collected from other parts of the city and then we were put onto this bus and we were taken to the railway station. At the railway station we joined what to me looked like an enormous crowd of people. It is difficult to know how many because when you are a child everything seems very much larger. There was something different about this station. Normally at the railway station in those days, well you would expect to see the occasional policeman of something like that. One saw here not only many policemen but also many SS men, the SS being of course one of the main Nazi organisations, but there was a difference with those as well that I noticed. The German police, like in most countries of course, normally carried revolvers as part of their normal everyday equipment but on this occasion they were actually carrying rifles. We were put onto a special train, especially chartered for us, and eventually, around about eleven o’clock in the morning the train departed.

We travelled and the train stopped at another station and other people were put onto the train and somebody, one of the other people on the train, came into our compartment, because in those days trains were divided into compartments, he said ‘do you realise we’re locked in?’ The doors had not only been closed, they had been locked from the outside. Out of mere curiosity some people tried the doors. Immediately one of the doors opened and a policeman came in and told us that if we tried to escape then as he put it; ‘Use would be made of the firearms.’ He said it in German of course but that was the form of words that he used. So after that we didn’t try the doors. None of us tried to escape. We knew there was no prospect of our getting away with that, we were simply trying the doors out of curiosity. The train had no kind of facilities, the toilets had been locked, presumably so no-one could hide in there but we travelled and those people who knew their geography realised from the names of stations that we passed that we were going eastwards, but that was as much as we knew. Eventually the train stopped at a small station, by this time it was dark and we were ordered off the train and I remember noticing, because as a child you don’t notice the same things as an adult, I remember noticing that the station clock said ten minutes to midnight and to me this was strange as I had never been allowed to stay up as late as that before. We were taken out of the station and there was a ramp with handrails on either side and standing by these handrails were SS men. They formed us up into rows with one SS man at each end of each row and we had to start marching.

Now I think that what must have happened was, but I can only speculate on this now, that as we moved forward other prisoners’ came onto this ramp as it couldn’t have accommodated all of us as because by this time there were several trainloads from different parts of Germany. We marched, and were very quickly outside this very small town and we marched into a forest, and we were told that we must keep absolutely quiet. I presume this was simply so that if any orders were issued that they could be heard but we were told that we must be quiet as otherwise we would disturb people sleeping. It is a bit difficult to imagine that but that was the way it was put to us, but of course people whispered to one another. The rumour went that we were all going to be taken to place where we were going to be shot. Well as you can see today that wasn’t true but I don’t know if that was simply a rumour started by somebody who was sacred as we all were or of it was deliberately started in order to frighten. At any rate as we marched it was very difficult for some people because we were people of all ages, from babies right up to very old people. There were sick people, we were lucky, we had been taken out of our home but there were people that had been taken out of hospital beds, and again we were lucky that we had been taken early in the morning when we were all still at home. As I found out later with some of the families had been taken out their homes later on in the morning when husbands had gone to work, children had gone to school, they had been simply taken separately you see and they had no idea if they would ever see one another again. There were, as I discovered later on, people who had died on this march.

Eventually we were stopped by a railway line and we were told, this is where we go on alone. The SS men stayed there and we walked between the rails because on either side of the railway line there were ditches. If we attempted to walk in the dark we would fall into ditches. The only thing is that walking between the rails of a railway line in the dark is actually surprisingly difficult. You’ve got the sleepers which you can’t see properly, you’ve got what they call the ballast which is the sort of gravel like material between them and of course if people fell they were in danger of being trampled because you can’t stop a large number of people walking when somebody falls. The momentum, it just doesn’t cease, so there were injuries. We walked between the rails and then onto our left we saw some lights so there seemed to be some sort of civilisation and we made our way towards that. No-one told us to but it seemed the sensible thing to do. We found ourselves walking over a ploughed field, again, difficult in the dark, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t think that the farmer would be very pleased when he saw the damage but what else could we do? We walked towards these lights which were in fact from the farmhouse, an isolated farm. When we arrived the occupants of this farmhouse were terrified and locked themselves in. They didn’t know what was happening, which one can’t blame them for that. We waited there and the SS men did not go any further, that was probably the frontier. We were in Poland.

We waited and when dawn came police came and soldiers came, Polish police and Polish soldiers and of course technically we were in the country illegally. We had crossed at an unauthorised point and we had not gone through immigration and customs and so on. Of course we had no choice in that matter, we would have preferred to obey the law but we had no choice in the matter but of course they wouldn’t accept that. We were all eventually taken away, and we found ourselves in a little place, which as I later discovered was called Zbaszyn.

Now in theory we were supposed to stay there and we were … well the Polish authorities wanted to force us back into Germany but the Germans were ready. For one thing the Polish authorities were themselves were very anti-semitic and they didn’t welcome the ingress of Jews and they certainly didn’t welcome Jews who had come by that route. So we were strictly speaking in the country illegally, although we had had no say in that matter and we were there in Zbaszyn. Well everything was so disorganised with all this happening so suddenly so that although many people had to stay there we managed to get away and we managed to get to Krakow where we had relations.

Now our relations lived in a part of Krakow called Kazimierz. It was the original Jewish quarter of Krakow because at one time Jews had only been allowed to live in certain quarters of towns. By the time we were in Poland the law permitted Jews to live elsewhere but the orthodox Jews all remained in Kazimierz and when I say orthodox some people would call them ultra orthodox. They were very strictly orthodox, they were Hasidic and they lived in a self imposed poverty, they were not interested in material wealth. Somebody in each family had to earn a living for the family but the rest devoted their life to religious study and religious observance. It was not a way of life that I had seen before on such a scale although my maternal grandparents were Hasidic they had not lived in the Hasidic community. They lived in France and we had visited them. I saw now this Hasidic lifestyle and people living in a state of poverty which I had not seen in Germany but they took us in and were good to us but it was very obvious we couldn’t stay in Poland. For one thing the Polish authorities regarded us as being illegal immigrants; for another thing, to us on the continent it was obvious that Poland was going to be invaded. I was later to find out that in Britain that there were still optimists who thought that peace could be maintained but nobody, certainly nobody in the Jewish community on the continent and I think very few people outside the Jewish community believed that that could happen. We all realised that Poland was next on the list and of course our treatment by the SS removed all doubts that something terrible would happen to the Jews. Of course we were not to know that it was going to happen on such a scale, we were not to know that technology would be used in that way but we all knew that something dreadful was going to happen.

We immediately tried to get away but of course this was terribly difficult. Where were we supposed to go? No country would admit us. In the meantime things had happened elsewhere; you probably know that a few days after we had gone to Poland that there was the infamous Kristallnacht in Germany and one of the things that that did was to draw the attention of the world to what was going on. Most people, whilst dimly aware that unfavourable things were happening to Jews in Germany, most people had not taken a lot of notice and I must say frankly that the same is true at the present time in parts of the world where dreadful things happen – most of us read the papers and then get on with our daily tasks, we don’t spend all day thinking about it. This was of course the way other people reacted and I can’t really blame them, we are all guilty of this to some extent. The Kristallnacht with its spectacular destruction of property drew people’s attention to it. In various countries people began to lobby governments saying ‘we know you have a bad unemployment problem’, all countries had at that time, ‘and we know that you don’t want to admit large numbers of refugees to add to your unemployment problem but will you at least take in some of the children to save them. They won’t add to the unemployment problem and it will save their lives’. Well a few governments agreed. Unfortunately they included the governments of countries such as France and Holland which were eventually going to be occupied by the Germans so the children that went there fell into German hands again. A few children were saved in Switzerland and one country that took children was of course this country, Britain.

The British government said that it would admit children provided that no part of the cost or the organisational burden fell on the tax payer. Provided that either individuals or charities were prepared to meet the cost and provided that some either private individuals or organisations were prepared to organise it children could come. It’s not quite clear to me whether they was a limit set on numbers or whether the numbers limited themselves by the outbreak of war but in the event just under 10,000 children came before the war began and of course that put an end to all travel.

Well most of the so called Kindertransport came from Germany or from Austria; there were a certain number coming from Czechoslovakia and a few from Poland. The ones coming from Poland were all limited to children in the same position that I was, namely that they were for children that had been forced into Poland from Germany. They were not for children who had lived in Poland all their lives. Eventually I was given a place, on my Kindertransport there where, as far as I remember, 21 children. The Kindertransporter from Germany and Austria were very much larger, usually a hundred to a hundred and twenty. I’m not sure if mine was a typical size from Poland but I eventually got to England.

Before that happened however, after having stayed in Krakow for a number of months I left Krakow and we went to a small village called where we had some other relations who were of course also Hassidic Jews living in the Hassidic lifestyle. So I saw the Hassidic village life a short time, I think I was there for about 4- 5 weeks altogether and again it was another experience. But one evening I was told by an uncle who had been out all day, he came in he told me that my Kindertransport was ready to go so the next day I had to return to Krakow.

The following day I spent in Krakow, in the evening I was taken to the railway station and there I met about 3 or 4 other children who were going from Krakow and the man who was going to look after us on the night train from Krakow to Warsaw. We travelled overnight, arrived in Warsaw the next morning and were taken to what I think must have been some kind of children’s home or something. It was a large house, it seemed to be equipped for children and we spent the day there. There were already some children there and there were others that arrived from other parts of Poland during the day and in the evening we were again taken to the railway station and we travelled overnight to Gdynia. Now a different man looked after us on that train but we arrived in Gdynia roughly in the middle of the morning and spent the day in Gdynia, again at some kind of home. I don’t know exactly what the home was used for on other occasions but anyway we were there. Then in the evening we boarded a ship which as I discovered subsequently was the ship that took all the Kinder from Poland and we had to board the ship early because it was a Friday evening because of course the Sabbath began and one is not allowed to board or disembark from a ship on the Sabbath. There was a Shabbat service on the ship during that evening and after the service I went back on deck to have another look at Gdynia but I couldn’t see it because during that service the ship had sailed and we were out of sight of land! We spent the next day travelling through the Baltic and then the following morning when I woke up and I looked out of the porthole and the first thing I saw was land because we were going through the Kiel Canal. During the night we had entered through the lock gates and the Kiel Canal was an international waterway so even people like us could go through it as long as we didn’t disembark. We spent the morning travelling through the Kiel canal and – I suppose it must have been the early afternoon – I can’t remember exactly when, we went through the other lock gates and it looked to me as if we were going out into the open sea. I have this clear mental picture, and much later checking it up on maps I began to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks with me because according to maps the Kiel Canal, the other end of it, does not go out into the North Sea it goes into the river Elbe. Well many, many years later I had occasion to be at that spot again and also to travel along the river Elbe in another ship on a completely different matter and I realise now that my memory was not playing tricks on me. The river Elbe is at that point too wide for people to see across it. It looks like the open sea but geographically it is the Elbe and hence still part of the international waterway so we could go there as long as we didn’t dock anywhere. Then of course from the Elbe one goes out into the North Sea but the way we were going of course it wasn’t obvious which was the river and which was the sea, it all looked like the sea and I spent the rest of that day and the next in the North Sea but during the afternoon we began to see the coast of what I now realise was East Anglia. So far as I was concerned it was England, I didn’t know the geography of England as clearly as that then. In the evening we docked, or at least we didn’t dock we anchored in the estuary of the Thames and waited for a pilot to come on board and take us up the Thames. The following morning we were in the Pool of London by the Tower Bridge, we had docked.

A man came on board to look after us Kindertransport children because there had been no-one supervising us on the ship, we had been completely alone. I understood that a man was supposed to have supervised us but because of some hitch he couldn’t come and no one else could be found to replace him. So now an Englishman came along to look after us, there was only one slight problem, he only spoke English so he couldn’t communicate with us, we couldn’t communicate with him. None of us spoke English; well I suppose some of the older children may have managed a few words but nothing more than that. Somehow or other we were disembarked from the ship and the different children went to the different places.

I was one of those who went straight to a foster home. Some children went to various homes, originally the government had not stipulated whether children were to go to foster homes or to children’s homes, as long as the British tax payer didn’t have to pay for it. Later on they made the stipulation as I subsequently found out, that they would only accept children for whom foster homes had been found. I have never been told officially the reason for this but I think I can guess. With war in the offing they thought that the children’s homes would be needed for evacuees but that’s my guess. I think it is likely to be a correct one.

I met there at the docks the person who was to be my foster mother and her sister. Foster fathers were of course at work then in those days so there was no possibility of their meeting children but my foster mother, I discovered, was very, very deaf. That was why her sister had come as well. So even if I could have spoken English I couldn’t have spoken much to her. Later on when I had learnt to speak English I could communicate with her up to a point by shouting very loudly but she was very deaf. So I was picked up at the docks and taken into London and eventually taken on an afternoon train to Coventry which was to be my home. At Coventry station I was met by my foster father, he had finished work for the day and he came to meet me and I was taken to their home. Now that really began a completely different chapter in my life. The date that I arrived in Britain was the 18 July so it was about six weeks before the beginning of the war.

Strangely enough the first time I heard a bomb exploded in anger was before the war began because one particular day I was visiting some neighbours, I was in their house and there was a very loud bang. Nobody knew what had caused it and we looked out of the door and there was a tiny little aeroplane flying over, I still have a mental picture and although I couldn’t speak English I could tell that people were asking one another ‘That’s British isn’t it?’ The idea that that plane could have come from Germany to bomb us was absolutely ridiculous, it was a small flying club type of plane, it could never have flown that distance! In actual fact it was an IRA bomb in the middle of the city, in the city centre, so to me that added a little bit to the frightening nature of the general experience. The war had not started, ostensibly we were all safe but this showed it wasn’t quite as safe as all that. Fortunately there weren’t any more IRA bombs, the war started approximately six weeks or so after I came to England and in the meantime I had had to put into a school. The law says a child has to go to school, the law didn’t say that child has to learn anything at school but just to go there. So of course I went to school, I couldn’t follow the lessons of course because I couldn’t understand the language and nevertheless the teachers were very understanding and I just sat in the classroom. Although I couldn’t learn what was being taught of course I was gradually picking up words of English and English phrases. When I had been at the school for probably about a week, possibly about a fortnight, something of that order, we were all assembled in the school hall and the headmaster made a speech. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but there was one word that he kept using and every time he used it produced a strong reaction amongst the boys. I didn’t know what the word meant but I remembered its sound and the word was ‘holiday’ – the school was about to break up for its summer holiday of course! Hence the strong reaction from the boys every time he used that word! Of course it was eventually conveyed to me that after that that would be no more school for a time because it was the summer holiday, well the summer holiday as I eventually discovered was supposed to be for four weeks but during those four weeks the war began.

Now everybody guessed, you could almost say that everybody knew, that once the war began there would be bombing. Nobody knew exactly what it would consist of, would a few planes come over and drop half a dozen bombs or would huge air armadas come over and devastate whole cities? Nobody knew but one had to prepare for the worst possible scenario. So the authorities first of all would not allow any schools to restart until they had improvised air raid shelters and also since the existing ambulance system would be totally incapable of handling a situation in which there might be hundreds, even thousands of casualties, nobody knew what exactly was going to happen. The authorities requisitioned large numbers of lorries and fitted them up as makeshift ambulances but then they had to park them somewhere and the obvious places where school playgrounds. Part of the school playground was converted into a parking space for ambulances, improvised ambulances, and the school hall was partitioned off with wooden partitions which had gaps in them which were filled with sandbags and that was to be the air raid shelter. These were placed away from windows because if bombs exploded glass would shatter and flying glass could cause a lot of casualties. So until all that had been done we were not allowed to go back to school and this meant that the holiday was prolonged.

To most of the boys that was just a god-sent opportunity for more play rather than work but to me it was also an opportunity to learn a bit of English before going back to school. I played with other children and learnt some English that way, I listened to the wireless, or radio, in those days one called it the wireless and learnt some that way and I discovered another custom that in England that I had not come across on the continent. On the continent, in Germany, a very, very rare treat had been going to a cinema. In Poland of course that was completely unfeasible for us, we could not have afforded that, but in Germany one went to the cinema perhaps once or twice a year. In this country one went every week! It was the custom and in fact once a week there was a special performance. Normally in the cinema programme in those days one had two films plus a newsreel plus a trailer of films to come the following week, possibly a cartoon or something, something short to fill in the time. Once a week a special programme was laid on with only one feature film and one paid much less for children you see and most parents sent their children that way. Well it was one way of getting them out from under their feet I suppose! Of course I went to these and learnt quite a lot of English through those. Much of it wasn’t the best of English and I had to unlearn a lot of it again but never the less it was a way of communicating.

By the time I went back to school I had learnt a little English. I could follow a bit from the lessons, not all of it but a little bit, and I gradually picked up more. The school couldn’t have had any preparation for this; today it is common practice for teachers to meet children whose native language isn’t English. In those days that was almost unheard of. One didn’t have children of Asian origin and the like in schools, except possibly in a few places in London, but generally speaking one could walk the streets, well for months, without seeing a single non-European person. So the school couldn’t have had any kind of guidance with this but they seemed to know instinctively what to do. I was put into a class of boys who where a year younger than I and I was with them until the Christmas holiday and then after that I was moved up to children of my own age and it worked very well. By the time I had been in this country for six months I could follow a large proportion of the lessons at school. My spoken English probably had quite a few gaps in it still but never the less I could follow the lessons. So in fact that was done.

In the meantime though of course the war had started and to those people who were not actually engaged in fighting the war, and didn’t have family members engaged in it, the outbreak of war didn’t at first make so much difference. One had to carry a gas mask, and one had food rationing and things like that and various things that one could have normally bought in a shop became either difficult to obtain or completely unattainable, but daily life continued until the summer of 1940.

In the late summer of 1940 of course bombing of this country began seriously. In a few places there had been the odd bombing raid earlier within the first few weeks of the war. There had been for example an attempt to bomb the Forth Bridge in Scotland. There had been odd occasions like that but most of us had not experienced nothing of that but from the late summer of 1940, well perhaps not so late, actually from about June 1940, some parts of the country started being bombed. At first the south mainly, then London, then the provincial cities and of course Coventry was severely bombed but eventually of course the war moved on to its different phases and eventually came to an end and that is really the story.

I lived in Coventry until I went to University and then I moved to Birmingham which was my university and although I kept my contacts with Coventry I spent most of the year in Birmingham, first at the university, later I worked in Birmingham and later I got a job in Leeds. This is my home, it has been since 1962!

I want people to hear my story. It is of course a lot better than many other stories. Many people had much worse experiences than I did but I think it is important for people to hear about these things so that they will do whatever they can do, whether it is a large contribution or a small one, to try to stop things like that from continuing to happen. Unfortunately similar things are still happening in various parts of the world and although we in this country can live peacefully with relative prosperity of course, there are parts of the world where this is not the case, nor is it by any means certain that it will always be the case here. As you well know once the second world war finished it was followed by the cold war which several times threatened to become a third world war. Fortunately there wasn’t a third world war but there were very destructive wars in some part of the world and there still are and one still gets genocide, or ethnic cleansing, or whatever euphemism people like to apply to it in different parts of the world. I think it is necessary for people to understand how these things can touch the lives of ordinary people; you don’t have to be some person of national or international importance to be affected. Ordinary people are affected and we should strive to stop these things from happening at present and stop them from happening again in the future. It’s for that reason that I think it is important for people to understand these things.