Escape to The Hill

 

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With storm clouds now gathering over Europe, 12 September 1938 - Hitler makes his much anticipated closing address at Nuremburg in which he vehemently attacks the Czech people and President Benes.

I Was Very Lucky by Professor Hans Popper.

In the late nineteenth century, the word 'race' became politicized and confused with the word 'nation'. The Jews, so blatantly a mixed community of peoples, were and still are widely - whether naively, or maliciously - called a 'race'. Before the plebiscite confirming the unification of Germany and Austria in 1938, political slogans were painted on the pavements of Vienna.

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After Hitler's victory, Nazis hauled Jews out of their flats to scrub the streets clean. Photographs of groups of local people standing around and having a good laugh were, of course, in the press. As things 'normalized', everybody 'non-Aryan' - i.e. Jewish - could be hauled off the streets or taken from their flats to be interrogated in a police station. Sometimes they were let go again, more frequently put in prison or in a concentration camp.

Prison was usually followed by release. In concentration camps, survival was a possibility, but it was rare. Also seized were people known to have belonged to one of the anti-Nazi parties (e.g. the Social Democrats), or anyone else who might be anonymously denounced, usually by the private entrepreneurs - or profiteers and gangsters - who took advantage of confiscated property. If you owned a shop or business, you were well advised to sell it and get away if you could. Some buyers were simply profiteers, but some actually helped their customers.

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Acquiring passports and exit visas was not so hard, though it was complicated enough, and was made as unpleasant as possible. Getting entry visas was always the really difficult part. Most if not all countries closed their frontiers to Jewish refugees, only letting in a trickle of small groups. One day it might be fifty to Finland, or twenty somewhere else, for no apparent reason.

 


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Special Kinder transports were organized for children, and a few Jews managed to get visas for Palestine (which was then under British mandate). A small number - mostly women - were accepted into domestic service in Britain. Otherwise, you had to be invited by someone who could guarantee for your upkeep. A few people crossed borders illegally, and what happened to them would depend on the grace and favor of the particular country.

Why could so few people get to safety? One reason one always hears is: "The foreigners take our jobs away from us." Yet any economist can tell you that the opposite is the case: immigrants' ideas and initiatives create jobs and other opportunities. The true reasons, in that time of depression and mass unemployment, were stark fear and xenophobia: fear of strangers. An animal smelling an animal a different herd is put on the defensive. The notorious story of the ship full of refugees sailing from country to country, ending up with all aboard dead, is too well known.

Children go to Palestinefrom

I was very lucky. My mother had English relatives - her uncle had moved to London before the First World War. His wife was the mother of Leslie Howard, the concert pianist, and other artistic boys and girls. Leslie was a big earner, but also a big spender, so they were reasonably comfortable, but not really rich enough to look after us. Still, they helped where they could, and Leslie Howard (a cousin, who was an RAF officer in the First War) worked very hard, even visiting us in Vienna, to help us get British visas. He and a lawyer eventually succeeded in getting us out.

First we stayed in Prague - my father had family there - but the Czechoslovak authorities would not consider extending our transit visa; so on the 27th of September, I think it was, we flew to London. Why did we fly? Because we had to sign an undertaking never to set foot on German soil again (and who could have wanted to?).

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When we got out of the plane in Croydon Airport, some official cross-examined us, although everything he could have wanted to know was clear from our passports and visa. How long this might have gone on and what the outcome might have been I can't imagine, but fortunately George Howard turned up, and after a few minutes' conversation, we followed him to his car. Settling in was a hazardous matter. Work permits were almost impossible to get. We depended on chance amounts of money turning up, often from the overworked refugee organization in Woburn Square.

Croydon airport

My parents had been asked by the refugee committee to run a house for refugees, and a local clergyman told us about Kingham Hill school. Eventually I got a free place at this boarding school in the Cotswold's set up by a philanthropic Victorian millionaire Charles E. B. Young .

By now the war had started. Soon they were all interned. I was under sixteen, too young to be taken. It was indiscriminate mass internment, no rhyme or reason in it. Most internees were released again after a few months, allegedly on medical grounds. Young men like my older brother went into the forces. Among others, there were a good many suicides . . .

Hans Popper was born in 1924 and grew up in Vienna. His family fled from the Nazis in 1938 and came to Britain. Hans joined Kingham Hill School and was in Norwich House. After army service, and qualifying as a teacher, he took a PhD in medieval German and went to work at Swansea University in 1961. Though retired, he is still an active researcher, working on medieval epics and on the philosophy and psychology of emotions in European traditions. He is a volunteer for the Samaritans and writes letters on behalf of Amnesty International. It was in September of 2008 that he granted our historian his permission to record his story and publish his article I was very Lucky on our website.

Bill "Willie" Strupp was born in 1928 in Germany. Thanks to information passed on to our historian by Bill's close friend, Geoff Ball, we can record that Bill's two sisters came to the UK from Saxony in 1938 by train to Hamburg and then by boat to Harwich. They already had family members in the UK to act as sponsors. That was a purely family arrangement when their parents foresaw what was going to happen.

Bill came in 1939 by Junkers 52 from Munich to Croydon. That's the story Eva, his sister, remembers. The family home was absorbed into the Russian Zone after WW2, but still stands to this day. Willie was in Bradford 1939 - 1944. Geoff Ball recalls it was this Journey by Junkers 52 that inspired Bill to join the RAF. Sadly we have to remind readers that he died at his home in Toronto on May 13th 2008. You can read Bill's obituary here.

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Kindertransport

Part of a Wikipedia article

"Refugee Children Movement or "RCM'" is the name given to the rescue mission that took place nine months prior to the outbreak of World War II. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany , and the occupied territories of Austria , Czechoslovakia , Poland and the Free City of Danzig . The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, farms etc.. On 15 November 1938 , a few days after " Kristallnacht ", a delegation of British Jewish leaders appealed in person to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom , Neville Chamberlain. Among other measures, they requested that the British government permit the temporary admission of Jewish children and teenagers who would later re-emigrate. The Jewish community promised to pay guarantees for the refugee children."

 

Wien Westbahnhof
( Vienna West Station, or Vienna Western Station)

Hans Leistina was at school 1939 to 1945.

My memories of my journey, in March 1939, are very vague. I remember saying Goodbye to my parents and grandparents at the Vienna Westbahnhoff. I was eight years old and the train was 100% children more or less my own age. The only thing that I remember, on the train, was an Official person coming into the compartment and asking all the children, that if they had any money, they were to surrender it. No one in my compartment had any money.

I do not remember eating anything and I do not remember any stops (I believe there were none) and I have no recollection of going on a boat. Later, I wondered if they put the train carriages on the boat. All the children ended up in a large waiting hall. After a wait of two or three hours, Miss Erna Beer came to pick me up. I did not have any baggage - that all travelled separately. Miss Beer was the Private Secretary of Sir Charles Seligman - my Guardian. They were glad that they had found Kingham Hill School to take me. Miss Beer took me to Paddington Station and she handed me over to the Train Conductor and requested that he make sure that I got off at Kingham Station. I slept all the way from Paddington to Kingham where I was met by the Warden - Rev. Douglas Horsefield and his German Speaking sister - Miss Horsefield who was also my Teacher in Class 2. Due to the fire of Plymouth house in 1938 , on arrival I was accommodated in Greenwich House.

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Hans also informed our historian of the WWII Jewish boys who escaped to Kingham Hill he only had contact with one - Hans Popper . There was never any attempt on the Hill to introduce the Jewish boys to each other - I do not know if that was intentional or an oversight. I no longer remember how I got to meet Hans Popper but I know both he and I came from Vienna, so I looked on him differently because he came from the same City as I did.

In 1947 the UK Parliament passed a special Naturalisation Act to grant UK Citizenship to any of those Jewish Children who were still minors and who had lost both their parents during the War. This was a very special and unique way of being granted UK Citizenship and I was one of those who benefited from it.

Hans Leistina is a retired accountant who now lives in Seattle in the USA. He proudly retains his British Citizenship. Hans joined the KHA on leaving school and has remained in touch ever since. He last visited the Hill in 2003.

The Class of 1938 Refugee Boys!

Rolf Breitenfeld Bradford

Walter Kubelbak Clyde

Hans Leistina Norwich

Hans Popper Norwich

Willie Strupp Bradford

Ralf Weber Sheffield

Also Mr Birch, the adult who lived with The Warden and worked in the Carpentry Shop. He eventually joined the Pioneer Corps.

This rescue operation is, in general, considered a success as most of the rescued children survived the war. A small percentage were reunited with parents who had either spent the war in hiding or survived the Nazi camps. The majority of children, however, lost home and family forever. The end of the war brought confirmation of the worst kind: their parents were dead. In the years since the children had left the European mainland, the Nazis and their collaborators had killed nearly six million European Jews, including nearly 1.5 million children.

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Click to visit their website

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The memorial to commemorate these events at Liverpool Street Station, London.

Our historian was in contact with the KTA organisation for information on one other of our class of 1938, Rolf Breitenfeld, as these communications show:- 

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Let's hope for any news of Walter Kubelbak, Ralf Weber or Mr Birch that this article might bring. I wish to dedicate this article to The Kindertransport Association for their assistance with my research for this article.

John D. Timmins November 2008

 

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