Winton’s Children – Part 1
Evolve, Devolve, Revolve Competition Entry
We all heard the German military car pull up outside.
‘Ruth, Emil—under here,’ my Aunt Brigitte called softly to us. We scrambled under the small round table and our Aunt let the tablecloth fall back in place to the ground. We knew not to make a sound. I was ten and my brother was seven years old.
Voices came into the room, and we could make out that there was trouble with some of Aunt Brigitte’s goats. They’d apparently wandered outside the fence and the Germans were complaining about being held up.
Aunt Brigitte apologised profusely and accompanied them outside to fix the matter and everyone’s voices retreated with them. Being Jews we didn’t dare move a muscle in case there was someone left behind in the room. After a long time listening hard for voices, we heard the car pull away. It was a relief when the tablecloth lifted and our Aunt told us it was clear.
The trouble sorted, she collapsed on a chair, and vowed any more frights and she wouldn’t survive until tomorrow when we had to be taken from her farm in Chemnitz, Germany back home to Czechoslovakia, where it was safer for we Czechoslovakian-Jewish children. Our usual short holidays with our Aunt were becoming more and more dangerous as we knew the German military was to be feared.
This fear was felt again the next day after we’d left Chemnitz and stopped at the German/Czechoslovakian border. The German guard studied us suspiciously at first although our papers were all in order, then reluctantly let us through.
It was good to be home, just outside Prague, and to look forward to the 1938 Christmas celebrations. True, we were Jews, but religion played only a small part in our lives and we wouldn’t miss Christmas for anything. All those toys and fun! It was worth waiting for and we made the most of it. When I was little I’d told our Rabbi on a rare visit to the synagogue about our Christmas tree and, in a fit of enthusiasm invited him to come and look at it ‘… as it’s so pretty’. Of course he didn’t come, and was very annoyed about it I’m afraid. My Mum and Dad had a good laugh when I told them.
Soon after the New Year my mother went to visit her cousin in Prague city and stayed away for five days. When she returned we overheard her talking to Dad saying she’d ‘Queued for four days to be put on the list because an Englishman had made all these arrangements in Prague and some more in England, and what had evolved was an escape route through the Netherlands’, then Dad put his arm round Mum, who was crying and said, ‘We have to let them both go.’ We didn’t understand any of this. Who was going to escape? And from what? Why should anyone bother us here in Czechoslovakia? It was only in Germany we had to be afraid.
We forgot about it until March when our mother started packing two small suitcases with our clothes and, with a wobbly voice, told us that we’d be going to England in a few days’ time. It turned out that Emil and I were the ones to ‘escape’.
Sure enough, in the morning two days later, on March fourteenth 1939 we were taken to Platform one at the big station in Prague, and were startled to see over two hundred other children waiting on the platform in front of a big black train. We all had cards round our necks with photos on the front and information on the back.
I hugged my mother and father, as, although this was for our safety, I wondered what would happen to them? We were all in tears in a moment. My heart was pounding and then a gentle lady whom everyone called ‘Aunty Truus’ called out our names. We hugged our mum and dad again but Emil wouldn’t let go, and I was hanging on to Mum’s dress until she told us we must leave. ‘We’ll see you when Czechoslovakia’s free again,’ she called to us as we turned and waved to them at the door.
Auntie Truus gently took our hands and was so kind and friendly. She showed us to our seats, told us where to put our cases, made sure we were comfortable, said we’d be on our way ‘very soon’, gave us a little friendly hug and was gone to look after the next lot of children. We couldn’t see our parents on the platform because we were on the wrong side of the carriage, and all the parents had crowded round the train windows. The train moved off and I had a huge lump in my throat. Mum had asked me to be sure not to let Emil cry, but he didn’t, and I was proud of him.
Where were we going? Who would look after us in England? What was going to happen at home? We were given some cake and a sweet drink, then we settled for our journey through Germany and the Netherlands. Emil was tired and went to sleep, but as the train rattled along I began to realise that we were on the brink of something big, going into an unknown future without our families to look after us and my world now seemed to revolve around this locked carriage that was taking us ‘somewhere’ to ‘someone’.
There were several others looking after us during the journey. Some of them wore funny clothes—long plain dresses with sheer white caps on their heads. Auntie Truus told us they were Quakers, and they were kind to us. All through the journey they were checking on us, giving us drinks if we wanted them; we only had to put up our hands and one of them would be at our side. They were all wonderful, and I began to relax.
We stopped at Nuremburg, and then Cologne. Someone put his or her window up to look out and the next thing a bundle of clothing was thrust through the window and landed on someone’s lap. One of the Quaker-ladies quickly gathered it up; it was a baby wrapped in covers, and was taken to the back of the carriage to be looked after. We guessed someone wanted their baby to go to England too, but the windows had to be kept shut after that.
It was dark when the slow train journey came to a stop and we were at the Hook of Holland where we were to leave the train and board the cross-channel ferry, already waiting for us. This would to take us to England. The ferry’s name was BODEGRAVEN and we went on board straight away. When we’d found our seats, someone brought us some nice food and drinks. We all felt better after that and later our ferry moved away from the wharf into the black night. I was disappointed because I’d been hoping to look at the sea, as I’d never been able to before.
In the morning we docked at Harwich, and there was yet another train to board. Emil was still tired although he’d slept most of the way over, and both of us were sick of all the travelling and waiting around. I kept stifling tears thinking of our parents all the time but didn’t let anyone else see because I thought the others must have been feeling like that too. The further we went the more miserable we became, and by the time we tumbled out at a station called ‘Liverpool Street’ and were herded into a big hall we were feeling sad. A smiling young man with glasses was walking amongst us, picking up some of the smaller ones and trying to make them smile. We didn’t know who he was, but guessed he must be in charge, and liked him straight away.
Names were called out and one by one strangers took the children away to their new homes. Gradually the crowd became smaller and smaller until there was no-one left but Emil and I. Standing there alone we were both shaking badly, especially when we saw that brothers and sisters were parted and sent to different homes, so I held on to Emil’s hand tightly.
The people with the lists seemed to be in some sort of worry, looking at list after list, and we just stood there waiting for something to happen. I have never felt so frightened in my life.
Suddenly the door opened and a small happy lady rushed in. She checked with the people who had the lists, and stopped short when she saw us both there.
To be continued tomorrow …
Bio: Shirley thinks the horrific events for children in those far off days must have left an indelible mark on them all. In comparison, Sir Nicholas Winton’s compassion burns brightly when the spotlight is put on it.