Eighty years since the Kindertransport brought refugees from Nazi Germany here

Every now and then you come across tales of great bravery and altruism in the face of unimaginable evil. Such was the organisation of the Kindertransport to get Jewish children out of Nazi Germany in 1939. I discovered recently that one of the beneficiaries, Hans Danziger, lives in Chiswick, and he was kind enough to tell me the story of how he came here from Berlin as an eight year old boy, eighty years ago.

The Kindertransport was an organised rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. Often the children who came here with the Kindertransport were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust. The British Government facilitated this and were prepared to waive certain immigration formalities.

A network of organisers was established in Germany, and these volunteers worked around the clock to make priority lists of those most at risk: teenagers who were in concentration camps or in danger of arrest, Polish children or teenagers threatened with deportation, children in Jewish orphanages, children whose parents were too impoverished to keep them, or children with a parent in a concentration camp.

Kind Dutch ladies on the train

Hans of course knew none of this. He remembers the kindness of the Dutch women who offered him and his sister Marion biscuits and cakes on the train, and also the rucksack he carried. Marion’s doll with a china face was inside and her remembers vividly that he accidentally bashed the rucksack against a bollard and smashed it. Marion, he says, was sanguine about it, but at five years old, I somehow doubt that. The toy train engine he brought with him survives to this day. He remembers also arriving at Liverpool St station, with a tag round his neck like Paddington bear.

They were chosen because their mother’s uncle’s adopted daughter was secretary to Lord Rothschild, who was a friend of Alan Sainsbury. Alan Sainsbury paid for a house in Putney where they stayed for the first three months, learned English and made their first acquaintance of English society. “We went to a school nearby. The children were very poor” he told me. “I was disgusted when they asked me to give them piggy backs because their backsides were hanging out of their trousers”. Alan Sainsbury, later Lord Sainsbury, stood as guarantor to 21 children.

Hans and Marion were lucky to go on holiday to one of the Sainsburys’ country houses and from there to Alan Sainsbury’s father’s hunting stables in Leighton Buzzard, to live with the family’s groom. “They were quite Victorian in their outlook” he says “we children were not allowed to use knives and I remember running out one day to hold Mr Sainsbury’s horse when he came back from a hack. The groom, whose name was Clark, shouted at me not to come out in the yard and to remember my station, but Mr Sainsbury told him to let me be”.

Life after that became a bit more cheerful when he and Marion went to live with the groom’s grown up daughter in Harpenden. Eva Leaney was 26, she worked in the Sainsburys’ shop and her husband was away at war, so the three of them kept each other company.

Letters from Germany

Jewish and Quaker agencies did a lot of the organisation for the refugees. Hans remembers weekends meant going to Hebrew classes in the morning in St Albans, followed by Sunday school in the afternoon. The Jewish Refugee Committee saw to it that he took his Bar Mitzvah at 13 and as the war ended he moved to live in St Albans with a German Jew who had been invalided out of the Pioneer Corps, wounded at Dunkirk. Emil Vasen established a hotel and took Hans in with a boy two years older than him, William, who became like a brother to him. Marion was sent to boarding school run by old German women doctors, which fortunately she loved, says Hans. He himself had to relearn German to converse with Emil, having forgotten all his native language after five years in this country. “My father used to send me letters through the Red Cross which I couldn’t read” he said.

Remarkably Hans and Marion’s parents, Leopold and Charlotte, survived the war. They had good friends who hid them, then got false papers and lived above ground, hiding in plain sight in Berlin. “My father had nerves of steel” says Hans. ‘Father, who had given up his business on the first of April 1941, and was now performing forced labour by order of the Gestapo, was lucky in having a good friend in Herr Theodor Goerner. He was the owner of a large book printing works, who was willing to buy father’s now useless business for the proper value and to put that money into an account from which father could take out regular amounts.  He was later to store some house-hold pieces which were packed by father. A true friend, and like many others, not Jewish’.

He describes how his father managed to avoid being sent to the camps:

‘The day came when father was told to stay behind after work. It was the eighteenth of January nineteen forty three. He knew what that meant and so with his usual insouciant manner got dressed and sauntered out of the main gate. To the gatekeeper’s “what, going home early?” Father told him he was going to the dentist.  No one had instructed the gatekeeper to prevent his leaving. He then made his way home. On entering the door he saw that a cup was placed upside down on a saucer in a prominent position in the window of the porter’s lodge. This was a signal that had been arranged between my father and Herr Fischer the porter should the Gestapo be waiting for him. He immediately turned and walked off to ride the U-Bahn for a day’.

After the war their parents were able to repay the debt by sending food parcels and money where possible, both to Herr Fischer and to Herr Theodor Goerner. ‘Father always made light of everything and took nothing too seriously except the loss of his children. There he argued against splitting the family and had it not been for Mother’s foresight and strength we would all be dead’. Others in his extended family weren’t as lucky as they were. ‘It must also have been at this time that his cousin Georg was forced to give up the Patisserie in town in case he poisoned the ‘aryans’. His brother had shot his Alsatian and then himself, when he could see no future’.

Reunited in London

Hans and his sister weren’t reunited with their parents until several years after the war. It took them until 1948 to get visas. By then, equipped with his School Certificate, Hans was living with William, working in London as an apprentice to a tailor in Regent St who was also from Berlin. ‘Our parents and I lived together at my lodgings at Mrs. Weitz’s house in Stoke Newington. She was a good soul and made them welcome. Mother who was a most capable ‘hausfrau’ managed to make a homely atmosphere in their one room no bigger than my study. She always made meals on one gas ring and served them as if it was the Ritz.

‘Pops would make trips to Woburn House to collect their allowance and it was there, after an extension of a further six months arranged by Alan Sainsbury that they met Mrs. Hahn-Warburg who was working there. At that time she was looking for a married couple to run the family home in Middleton Cheney, near Oxford, and offered the job to our parents, affording them the means to stay in England’.

Hans is immensely grateful to Lord Sainsbury, who took him in and paid for not just his upkeep but his schooling. He remembers being summoned to Stamford House to show him his school reports, much as his own children had to do. He’s also grateful to his uncle Hans, who also survived the war being hidden in Holland, for pulling the strings to get them on board the train. Marion died a few years ago.

Although his immediate family survived, hans’ wider family did not. He has written an account of his life for his own two children: ‘The almost total destruction of the whole of your continental family should never be forgotten. These were people who had assimilated and were second and third generation German or Austrian, worked hard and raised loyal and moral bourgeoise families, and then had their trust in the state shattered when they were sent to their deaths. Why? The Nazis were determined that as Jews they had to be exterminated’.

Photograph above: Hans Danziger in the Therapeutic Garden of Grove Park Surgery, where he helps out.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: New Year’s Honours 2019

See also: WW1 – How Chiswick fared in the Great War