My son is nine and becoming more independent, but the thought of him taking the bus on his own fills me with dread. So imagine what it was like for the parents of nine-year-old Vera Schaufeld when they said goodbye to her at Prague station as she joined the Kindertransport.
Stopped at barriers by Nazi soldiers, they had to watch as she boarded the train alone. It’s an image that tears at your heart, yet for years Vera felt her Kindertransport experience was of little consequence compared to that of her husband, Avram, who had survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other forced labour camps.
As she speaks of her childhood, Vera, now 89, is matter of fact about the tragedies that changed her life and clings to the memories of her family life which included cruises to Norway and the North Pole. “We were well off, with a nanny and a cook,” she says, and talks proudly of her father, a successful lawyer and leader of the Jewish community and a mother who was the first female doctor in the town.
That town was Klatervy, near the Sudetenland, in what was then Czechoslovakia, and by the time the Nazis invaded in 1938, Vera’s maternal grandmother was living with them too. She witnessed the arrest of her son-in-law, which as Vera recalls kept her home from school.
It was at school that a teacher she had always liked said: “Whenever there is trouble, the Jews are always the first to run away.” It was a comment that still haunts her today. “For the first time in my life, I felt I wasn’t Vera, or a person, any more, I’d become ‘the Jews’. I never felt the same again,” she says.
Vera was one of the 669 children rescued by Sir Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport and she remembers the ashen faces of her own, and other, parents behind barriers waving handkerchiefs. She was excited, believing the separation would not be for long and she had an autograph book that her friends, family and parents had signed. She had no idea she would never see them again.
Vera doesn’t remember anything of the journey until reaching Liverpool Street. “I was completely bewildered, sitting on a bench listening to announcements in a language I couldn’t understand and seeing other children collected and thinking no one was going to come for me.”
But a Christian couple, Leonard and Nancy Faires, did come, along with their daughter, Betty, who became a lifelong friend. It was hard adjusting to life in another country without her family, and she was incredibly homesick but, she says, the Faires saved her life.
Later she heard through the Red Cross that her parents, grandmother and other family members had perished.
At 21, Vera, who later taught English, moved to a kibbutz in Israel to reacquaint herself with her Judaism. There, she met Polish-born Avram. “He was so good-looking,” she chuckles. “There was a girl aged four in the house where he lived and he was really sweet with her. I thought ‘what a nice man.’”
The couple married in 1953, had two children, and were founder members of both Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre – which provides social, therapeutic and practical support to survivors – and the National Holocaust Centre in Nottingham. They also worked with other organisations, speaking to children and adults about their experiences. “I felt by talking to children they would discuss it with their parents,” she says of her involvement, and feels very strongly about helping children in similar circumstances.
“What happened to us wasn’t unique – there have been other genocides. We have to know about their experiences today. The children who are alone and stranded in Europe should have the opportunity to come to England as we had.”
Sadly, Avram died in 2017, so he did not get to see Vera receiving an MBE this year for services to Holocaust education from Prince William, or an honorary doctorate from Roehampton University in recognition of her achievements in education. There’s no doubt he would have been very proud.