By Ernest Simon, Kindertransport refugee.
My wife and I were terribly excited to recently receive an invitation from Prince Charles to attend a reception at St James’ Palace on Monday, 24 June. The reception is the day after the special reunion at JFS in Kenton to mark the 75th anniversary of the Kindertransport.
I began to reflect on how all this came about and how I became involved. I thought about my past, my origins, my parents, my experiences on the Kindertransport, my early time in England, my time growing up as an (almost) typical English schoolboy. And I reflected on what might have been had there been no Kindertransport and no welcoming Jewish family in Leeds who looked after me so kindly.
I reminded myself how lucky I had been. My parents had taken the incredibly difficult decision in 1938, after Kristallnacht, to send me to England on a Kindertransport from Vienna.
Aged eight, I said goodbye to my mother, father and younger brother at the Wien Westbahnhof at about midnight on 11 January, 1939.
They had no idea whether they would ever see me again and I was too young to worry about such things. I only remember snatches of the journey: that I had a number hanging from my neck, that we went on a ship (from Hoek van Holland, I discovered later).
I must have slept for most of the journey and have no memory of arriving in Leeds, nor of spending at least one night in a hostel in the East End of London – something I discovered years later.
My luck continued. Soon after arriving in Leeds and my welcome in Mr and Mrs Morris’ home, I started school. Cowper Street School was in the heart of the Jewish area of Leeds. I arrived wearing my typical Austrian winter school wear – knickerbockers or plus fours – and was immediately the centre of attention. The fact I spoke no English added to the interest shown.
Luckily, one of the teachers spoke some Yiddish, so basic understanding could be created. Children are quick learners and I was communicating with my peers within weeks. Some of the boys who befriended me at that time remain my friends, 75 years later.
My luck continued. My parents arrived in the Leeds area with my brother about a month after I had left them. This was in sharp contrast to the vast majority of children who came on the Kindertransport and who never saw their parents again.
Up to September 1938 we had lived in Eisenstadt, some 45km south of Vienna. Jews had been welcomed there for hundreds of years and it was a well known centre of Jewish learning, one of the famous sheva kehillot (the seven communities), but immediately after the Anschluss of March 1938 the Nazis made it clear they wanted all Jews to leave.
In September 1938, we, and all our Jewish neighbours, were compelled to abandon our home and belongings. Once settled in a small flat in Herminengasse in the (Jewish) 2nd District of Vienna, my father’s main aim in life was to obtain an exit visa. It was immaterial to him whether this was for Palestine, USA or England.
Fortunately the one for England came quite quickly and they became domestic servants to two doctors in Yeadon near Leeds, which meant we saw each other from time to time. By 1942, after my father had spent time on the Isle of Man, we were once again living together.
My brother and I grew up as British schoolboys, went on to Leeds University, he studying medicine and I economics. While on a brief visit to London in the late 1980s, my wife saw a newspaper advertisement for the forthcoming 50 year Jubilee of the Kindertransport, organised by Bertha Leverton. We went and were tremendously impressed.
I met people who had been with my brother and me in the Stainbeck Lane hostel for refugee children in Leeds and was once again reminded of my luck. Many of these boys were already over 14 when they arrived in England and so never attended school here, with the result that their future was rather limited.
It’s wonderful we can once again mark a Jubilee, this time 75 years – probably the last occasion for such a celebration in view of advancing years. And it is even more remarkable that Prince Charles honours us with this special reception at St James’ Palace. I feel lucky to have been invited.