What traces of the Holocaust can be found in suburban Southwest London?
In the late 1930s, ten young Jewish boys fled from Nazi Germany and Austria and came to our town in south west London as part of the Kindertransport. This is the story of two of the boys: Rolf Metzger and Franz Reichmann.
The ‘Children’s Transport’ was the name given to the attempt to save the lives of as many Jewish children as possible from the Nazi regime. The Kindertransport began in November 1938, and enabled around 10,000 children to flee Hitler’s tyranny and find safety in Britain. The children were not allowed to be accompanied by their parents and it was envisaged that the young people would return to their families ’once the crisis was over’. The first Kindertransport arrived in Britain on December 2nd 1938. Around 10,000 children came to Britain by September 1939, when the initiative had to end because of the outbreak of the Second World War. Most of the children were never to see their parents again.
Rolf Metzger was born on 21st August 1928 in the German city of Mainz. His mum and dad were Robert and Betti who were married in 1922. Jewish people had lived in Mainz for centuries before Hitler came to power but the discrimination that Rolf’s family and others in the Jewish community faced was terrible. The synagogue that had been built in 1912 was burned down by the Nazis in the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938. Rolf came to England on the ship ‘Prague’ which sailed into the port of Harwich on 27 June 1939. He was just eleven years old when he had to leave his family and travel to a foreign country. The photographs and documents that Rolf’s family have very kindly shared with us show a happy boy having fun on his tricycle. His children’s ID card, issued by the Nazis authorities, has a prominent red ‘J’ stamped on it – part of the discrimination that the Nazis heaped on the Jews; the Nazis were trying to separate Jewish people from other Germans. Other documents include Rolf’s boat ticket from Holland to Harwich, and his confirmation certificate from West London Synagogue in 1944.
Franz Reichmann was born in 1930 in a town called Beuthen in Germany, which after the war became part of Poland and was renamed to Bytom. Franz was the oldest of three siblings. He had a younger brother, Henry, and a younger sister, Vera. Just before Kristallnacht, Josef Goebbels visited Beuthen and made a deeply racist, antisemitic speech in the town. Local Nazis burned down the synagogue in Beuthen and the local Jewish people were made to stand for hours in front of the burning building. Kurt and Betty Reichmann took the heart – breaking decision to send their three children to the UK as part of the Kindertransport. Franz was eight years old. When the children, including Franz, said goodbye to their parents in May 1939, it would be the last time they would see them. It is believed that Franz’s parents, Kurt and Betty, were murdered by the Nazis on 13th June 1942 – possibly in Auschwitz. They were both 36 years old. Similarly, his grandparents perished in the Holocaust in 1942. Their names appear on lists written by the Gestapo of the Jewish people who were taken from Beuthen. There were 982 names on the list. Franz finally ended up at Lebanon Park after not being able to settle with the family he was originally sent to live with. Franz was told to change his name to ‘Frank’ when he was in England because it sounded ‘too German’. It was at the house in Twickenham that he met and befriended Butch (Ralf), George (Gunter), Emil, Freddy and the others. After Franz left school, he became an apprentice electrician. He went on to have a variety of jobs throughout his lifetime, such as dealing in Government Surplus, having a market stall in Portobello Road, running an electronic components business in Tottenham Court Road, and managing a guest house on the Isle of Wight. After this, he moved back to the mainland to work until retiring. Franz died 12 years ago. He had four children with his wife – three sons and a daughter.
This is a story not far from where I live; a story that beautifully conceptualises how ordinary people, similar to you and I, lived through what we may only visualize mentally.
The method world memory champions use for remembering is called ‘loci’ (latin for place) where, in short, you attach narratives to what you must remember to help recall it. Not only do narratives strengthen memory but also create a strong emotional bond between yourself and the narrative. Narrative may also cure the apathetic attitude young people have regarding genocide. It is important we humanise the people we lost in the Holocaust. There are no longer simply 6 million Jews but human beings capable of complex thought and vibrant emotions.
Avraham Shamroni a retired kibbutz worker, Jack Halford a retired metal consultant, brother to Luntz Zeisler retired milk worker of 25 years and Bradford lollipop man until his passing. Alec Grunhut, retired tailor in Leeds. These people escaped Nazi persecution via the Kindertransport and came to Bradford. A large house was bought to accommodate them, as well as 24 other boys and one girl, the hostel was established in March 1939.
Ruth was the only girl, her father was a Lawyer in Berlin before he fled his city and country with his family to become a hostel warden. Herbert Agar missed a lot of Ruth’s childhood as he was extremely busy. He would help in the kitchen and fix things around the house.
During the reunion in 1989 the boys and Ruth only looked back at the ‘hostel days’ with nothing but fondness. They laughed and shared nostalgic memories with each other at the former hostel, now Carlton Hotel. It truly warms the heart when hearing of how they found solace amid all of the distressing times of war and rationing.
It is important that while we acknowledge and understand the tragedy of the Holocaust we also acknowledge the fact that these people loved and laughed just as you and I. These people came from middle class families and live life to its fullest extend before the November Pogrom. After that their life changed overnight. That could be you or me at any given moment with the right circumstances.
This is why it is so important we remember these people with sincerity.